No Concessions: A Waning “Passion”
Well, that happened. But being a big fan of Brian De Palma’s work, keen for a career renaissance, and unwilling to wait for far-off Aug. 30 to see his latest film, Passion, I ordered a French Blu-ray in spring, and gave it a spin on my mult-region player. The verdict? Let’s just say I might have waited–outside of a handful of adoring critics who will cut him more slack, I’m glad I’m not seeing it in a theater, where the snickering of fellow audience members at the worst of it would be unbearable.
Both impulses are understandable. From 1973-1993 I loved De Palma, and looked forward to each new film. Sure, there were missteps, failures, outright bombs. But what a ride! I can say my teenage self grew up, matured, watching, and endlessly rewatching, on cable, Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill (my favorite, still), and Blow Out. My later acquaintance with Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise on home video was equally rewarding. Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way…it’s pretty much all here. I’ve done the work, and I have no problem tossing Passion into the scrap heap, with Snake Eyes and Wise Guys and other duds.
No problem…but a few regrets. One, of course, is for the movie itself, a remake of the decent, not great, French suspense drama Love Crime (2010), which you can watch on Netflix Instant. Decent, not great, movies should provide ideal opportunities for remaking and reimagining; there’s a sturdy-enough frame in which you can set your own canvas. And De Palma, with the laudable assistance of cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine (of Pedro Almodovar’s intriguingly frigid The Skin I Live In) has supplied a few signature swoony moments in and about the corporate enclaves of Berlin, with a score by the great Pino Donaggio (his first for De Palma since 1992’s Raising Cain) that sets the tempo for an erotic thriller, a genre the director pioneered with Dressed to Kill and Body Double. Would he somehow transcend that by now worn-out form, as he did with his last noteworthy film, the time-bending Femme Fatale (2002)? Anticipation is high. Then we meet the stars, and the movie goes into freefall.
The final film of director Alain Corneau (best kmown for the 1991 arthouse hit Tous les matins du monde), the Paris-set Love Crime features Kristin Scott Thomas, in full frost, as Christine, a tough executive who uses people like Kleenex, and Ludivine Sagnier as her oft-humiliated administrative assistant, Isabelle. Nonetheless bewitched on some level by her boss, who steals her ideas and presents them as her own, Isabelle begins an affair with Christine’s boyfriend, a contractor with their firm. (It’s not altogether a betrayal, as Christine’s interest in her buttoned-down, insecure assistant is implied to be more than strictly business.) When Christine goes too far in her games with Isabelle…that’s where the crime comes in, and where a spoiler-free plot summary must end. Let’s just say it’s more than a little far-fetched, though by the standards of the frequently second- or third-rate movies available on Netflix Instant, not terrible.
Alas, De Palma, who adapted as well as directed, buys into the whole, increasingly silly thing, and makes it worse. Being De Palma, we expect him to go deeper into Love Crime‘s pansexual undercurrents, give Isabelle’s workplace hardships a Carrie-like pathos, and to generally shock and unsettle us. But Passion is strangely chaste, and abashed, as if we’re seeing a version prepared for timid basic cable channels. (Not all that much comes from the masks and sex toys Christine has in her boudoir.) Perhaps realizing this, De Palma tacks on an epilogue to the Love Crime storyline that gives him a chance to strut his stalk-and-surveillance chops. We’re well beyond caring at this point, having been subjected to more of his weaknesses than his strengths, like a basic difficulty in some of his self-penned scripts to get characters talking naturalistically, which is often covered by good casting.
Not here. It’s one thing that the actors playing detectives in the second half are lousy; you’d overlook that if the leads weren’t so poor. In Love Crime, the 50-year-old Scott Thomas and the 31-year-old Sagnier are smartly paired, enacting a dynamic informed by age, experience, and social standing–they surpass the script. De Palma has reconceived the characters as peers, an idea that founders. Though almost 35, McAdams seems too young, too girlish, and too unformed to have the advertising world falling on its knees (De Palma does have a little fun with aspects of the trade); her play acting in painful. She is, however, preferable to Noomi Rapace, as Isabelle, with whom she has little rapport, much less passion. The original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s career has thus far been imperfectly translated into English, and she flails throughout, hitting rock bottom, I mean, terrible, as Passion reaches its convoluted end. I can hear the chuckles and chortles from the the theater from here. More’s the pity.
That said, for all its faults, I wish Passion was getting more of a hearing at actual movie theaters, where you could enjoy its style and technique, however submerged, more fully. You’re more likely to find it on VOD, where it’s bumping into The Canyons, directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote De Palma’s Obsession (1976). That movie begins with a montage of closed, derelict movie theaters, as empty as those showing Passion or The Canyons, which fell off the Top 50 boxoffice chart two weeks after its hyped opening. (It’s another film whose appeal is limited to fretful, hopeful critics.) Schrader has said that his movie was meant to be consumed at home, but I hate that groundbreaking filmmakers (my guys, the ones who hit me where I lived in the 70s) go years between ill-fitting projects that get more of an escape than a release. De Palma, Schrader, Walter Hill, etc., must regard Woody Allen with awe as Blue Jasmine garners his widest theatrical release yet, with a bouquet of loving notices to go with it. It’s a damn shame that there’s no place at the table for his contemporaries, who still have the talent to make great movies–but it would help if Passion, The Canyons, and Bullet to the Head did more to earn one.