When he’s not venturing outside his niche (2007′s anti-war tirade Redacted), director Brian De Palma, known to pay homage to Hitchcock since 1973′s Sisters, has been accused of repeating his pet themes and rococo indulgences. Aside from his last “suspense-thriller” misfire (2006′s misguided The Black Dahlia), most of his films are constructed like virtuoso symphonies pulled off by a master, but his latest is low on the totem pole. So deliberately melodramatic that it nearly approaches self-parody, Passion progresses as it goes along, even for a greatest-hits pastiche, but very little of it works in the final wash. There is no excuse for a thriller to be this flat half the time when the auteur attached has proven again and again to be capable of making a great, hypnotic one.
A remake of the 2010 French thriller Love Crime (which co-starred Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott Thomas), Passion gets the De Palma treatment as a loopy, kinky whodunit (the director also wrote the script, adapting from the original film). At a Berlin advertising agency, icy blonde Christine (Rachel McAdams) is the American boss and brunette Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is her protégé. They share an account for a new “Omniphone” campaign. Christine takes all the credit but keeps Isabelle as her puppet, sharing a sob story with her to earn sympathy. On the other hand, Isabelle is sleeping with Christine’s boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson), who supplies the ice queen’s desire for kinky S&M. It’s all fun and manipulative games, until someone gets hurt.
In theory, Passion has all the thematic makings and none-too-subtle technical signatures of a classic De Palma film — blackmail, twin sisters, Dutch angles and split screens, noir lighting, an operatic score by De Palma regular Pino Donaggio, and the requisite “is it a dream?” sequence, sometimes more than once. However, just because it looks like De Palma doesn’t mean it’s quintessential De Palma. For a film with this title, Sapphic lovemaking has never felt less titillating.
McAdams and Rapace work up compelling enough tension, beginning as giggly-when-drunk girlfriends, growing into sensual quasi-lovers, and then ending as enemies. When Christine tells Isabelle, “there’s no backstabbing here; this is business,” we know everything out of her mouth should be taken with a grain of salt. The conniving characters are more like pawns in the narrative’s master plan than real people anyway.
The first half plays like a flavorless corporate-backstabbing drama, and then, thankfully, the rest actually flips on the De Palma switch, taking on a more baroque, visually stylish vibe. A slow zoom here, the overhead shot of a winding staircase there, and a murder sequence split into two frames (one being a ballet performance), but it’s not enough when the whole Working Girl-by-way-of-Black Swan narrative just flatlines. When all is laboriously explained, the whodunit plot twists aren’t terribly surprising, and the entertaining final shocks, while they’re pure De Palma, almost feel like a parody.
In the filmmaker’s oeuvre, Passion is not De Palma in peak form. Not engrossing enough to be a juicy thriller and not campy enough to be a guilty pleasure, like Femme Fatale, this is just a glossy, disappointingly standard potboiler rather than a deliciously diabolical dessert. By the enraging end, you hope you’ll awaken from a nightmare and really be watching something that invokes the voice of his superior, more audacious thrillers—Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and, despite the majority opinions, Body Double and Raising Cain, all of which never had a dull moment—from a bygone era.
105 min., rated R.