There’s a scene in Brian De Palma’s 1980 film Dressed to Kill that resurfaces in Passion, offering a particularly glib observation on shifts in contemporary culture. In Dressed to Kill, a woman’s adultery (and post-sex snooping) reveals that her one-night stand is HIV-positive. The figurative death sentence is met with a more literal, though no less grisly, one that inspires much of the parallel social concerns on De Palma’s mind. In Passion, a sex tape ends up being the new AIDS as the invasion of privacy provides the backdrop of a plot of corporate deceit and vengeance.
Like Dressed to Kill, Passion is a film with many preoccupations. It’s also a film with a distinct auteurist sensibility in what marks a welcome return for the accomplished director. It’s been five years since his last feature and over a decade since his acclaimed effort, 2002’s Femme Fatale. Of course, even that film was lambasted by the critical community upon its release, only to find a vocal group of supporters as the years allowed a reevaluation of his work. De Palma, a master craftsman, carefully deploys indicators of thematic concerns from the onset in Passion, as he develops and revisits these concerns as the narrative demands it. From an Apple insignia that illuminates the screen in his opening shot to observing the interactions of men and women in a contemporary workplace, the more cinematic elements of violence and revenge are put on hold as De Palma carefully constructs something of nightmarish intensity.
The general premise targets the exploits of two young women working their way up the corporate ladder in Germany. The senior executive, Christine (Rachael McAdams) takes an idea from her work partner Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) that establishes the unsettling double aspect of any workplace: the phony façade of spewing a work-as-a-team rhetoric while simultaneously cutting the throat of those you work with. Isabelle, the more hesitant of the two, accepts the betrayal as business as usual, though eventually goes rogue when she learns her initial idea was being watered down. Christine’s loses out on a promotion while Isabelle seems to be well in line for one.
The lines are drawn plainly here, though it’s the gender politics that gives considerable heft to previously charted territory. What’s seen in Passion is something of a relinquishing of male hegemony while also reinforcing it – the two women are essentially combating for a position that’s promised by a male authority. Easily swayed, the man flips back and forth between choosing either Christine or Isabelle, established their interchangeability (and De Palma’s own fascination with doubles). Both Christine and Isabelle may be operating in the foreground but they are at the will of larger forces that dictate their rivalry. But if the film proves anything, it’s that to succeed, one needs to be aware of these social restrictions and manipulate them to your advantage.
The devil’s in the detail in Passion where every frame, every glance, and every movement carries significance. The usual De Palma tendencies – the voyeurism, sexual politics, Hitchcockian thrills – are abundant and unified within a narrative that exploits their riches. And as De Palma escalates the tension in his deployment of a wondrous split-screen overture, the pleasures of the preceding narrative demand reevaluation in the wake of some batshit crazy narrative developments.
The unsettling sense of camp that defines De Palma’s work can at times be jarring, but then again it’s been quite some time since I’ve revisited his work. Formally, the structuring and compositions are flawless. The dreamy haze that De Palma creates makes for the sort of experience that is solely the auteur’s concoction, with no one working today that can match his stylistic tenacity. The thematic layers discussed here are only some of the concepts that are explored as Passion provides one of the most substantive experiences in the cinema this year.