Last weekend, I pulled up Brian De Palma'sPassion on VOD, largely because it was a new release I wanted to get under my belt eventually (and I didn't have nearly enough time to pack in Marketa Lazarova, which I've been dying to see in the month or so since buying the Criterion Blu-ray - but, you know, 165 minutes). I was surprised to find just how much I liked the film, as De Palma is not one of "my guys" by any stretch.
With Passion, De Palma's most melodramatic streak is, if not as perversely indulged as in The Black Dahlia, then certainly presenting a sort of aged exhibitionism, and his aesthetic is beautifully wrought with a thoroughness of form-is-content rigor that is better discussed in Glenn Kenny's review than I could manage here. The key passage is thus:
De Palma's style has always used split-screen, and his compositions often manipulate backgrounds and foregrounds so that one tells an almost completely different story that the other does, simultaneously. Our ways of looking at the world have caught up with De Palma's way of presenting information on a cinema screen. And as I said, it's all pretty exhilarating if you're turned in on that level.
No disagreement from me. Where I sometimes felt De Palma was being...if not excessive, then certainly extra-expressive with such split-screen virtuosities, they did make the kind of wild, inventive use of the frame that one longs for. With Passion, beyond the totally thrilling aesthetic experience they create, there's also a real narrative/emotional/thematic hook to them, as we question just what is being watched, by whom, and where each person in this arrangement is. The eventual payoff these questions anticipate is perhaps predictable (perhaps not), but is at least a cohesive viewpoint, the kind of thing that makes it frustrating when people say it's "got style, no substance," as though the two are so inextricable.
Some of that perceived lack of substance has been said to have come from the performances, namely from the two leads, Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. Kenny again, setting the stage:
...the ridiculously flat dialogue and almost pantomime performance styles on display in Passion will not come as any surprise to a longtime De Palma watcher, although they are likely to elicit some sort of "That was stupid" reflex in non-adepts.
And then, a series of critics dancing on it...
Richard Corliss, in TIME:
McAdams, usually a winning personality, seems embarrassed by her presence here; and Rapace, who invested a Mensa fury into her Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, looks frightened, as if assaulted by the camera's glare.Lee Marshall, at Screen Daily:
[T]he high-profile casting of Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace in the two main roles works a lot better on paper than it does in practice.... Whereas Kristen Scott-Thomas and Ledivine Sagnier fully inhabited their roles as domineering boss and sexy ambitious but fragile underling [in 2010's Love Crimes, of which this is a remake], McAdams and Rapace never really convince as rich, manipulative and self-assured advertising executive Christine and talented but rather innocent and insecure junior manager Isabelle. McAdams is better though at catching the playful, parody element in her role, something that Rapace, who is all intensity, seems to struggle with.Guy Lodge, at HitFix, after describing Rapace as "utterly at sea":
No less strangely cast is McAdams, years too young to possess this dragon-in-heels role with the coolly unimpressed swagger of Kristin Scott Thomas. Still, if she seems to be playing dress-up in several scenes, at least she's playing: she deserves a more responsive scene partner when she sweetly bares her teeth and says, "You have talent. I just made the best use of it."Jamie Dunn, at The Playlist:
The characters are little more than noir cyphers, but both actors are game and have fun taking turns at playing femme fatale as they cross and doublecross each other throughout the increasingly convoluted narrative.
Review after review, critics are at least rising above Kenny's "This was stupid" prediction, but rarely giving anyone involved more credit than "it looked like they had some fun." Look at the word choices - they "never really convince," McAdams is "too young to possess." These are startlingly normative approaches to cinema, acting, and representation, demanding verisimilitude from a film, and filmmaker, who giddily laughs at the very notion. I would argue that what De Palma and his actresses are up to is far more intriguing, nefarious, and layered than many are recognizing, or what they're asking for. Further, I would submit instead that McAdams' and Rapace's (possible) shortcomings are to De Palma's tremendous advantage.
Danny Kasman's assessment at Mubi is far more attuned to De Palma's wavelength:
Remember how Rebecca Romijn watches Stanwyck in Double Indemnity at the beginning of Femme Fatale, as if taking notes? The characters in Passion have taken notes from Femme Fatale: an abstraction based on a fiction based on a fantasy. It is complex, dextrous, and awkward: Rachel McAdams plays and acts the seductive, power hungry blonde in a performance that is like a kabuki imitation of the type; Noomi Rapace is her underling, friend, object of love and obsession, our heroine and, therefore, at first, directed to act “normally.” (This film's skewering of cinematic female friendship is twisted, sinister, cynical and terribly interesting.) Like in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, but far more knowingly, cleverly, the director is here forcing a confrontation between two entirely different acting styles and kinds of characters. In Passion, one is ostensibly a hollow signifier, the other our, the audience's, psychological subject, person of empathy. Except the film, lurchingly structured in three fascinating sections, with the middle one styled radically differently, introduces a third character, another woman (which brings the collection to: a blonde, a brunette and a redhead), who begins to appear more normal as Rapace's character enters deeper into the story and begins to be abstracted by the movements and conventions of her plot.
De Palma has no problem outright saying he felt he could improve upon Love Crimes immediately after seeing it. And yes, Kristen Scott Thomas might be better suited to Christine, an exploitative, manipulative business executive from a casting director's perspective. Thomas is nearly twenty years McAdams' senior, and is perhaps (I've not seen the film) a little bit more believable in the role of someone who has risen to such a position.
De Palma's never been about "believability." McAdams' relative youth actually gives him more to play with, not less, and the extent to which she is posturing as an actress capable of a certain heightened, just-this-side-of-camp performance mirrors the way her character is, in a sense, performing as an executive, as a manipulator, as a sexual deviant, etc. Every stilted, "awkward," pronounced line delivery of hers is the sign of a woman whose construct of herself is inseparable from the real thing. Christine's (and perhaps McAdams') inability to convince us mirrors, and feeds into, the contempt her staff has for her. People have a certain level of respect for somebody who has worked long and hard to get where they are, even if they are unpleasant - Christine commands nothing of the sort.
But she keeps acting the part, down to her costume, or lack thereof. In a film consumed with sex and sexuality, we see Rapace naked, but not McAdams. Let's suppose that she would have been willing - how much does it say about her character that she insists upon covering herself up in the midst of otherwise rather outlandish sexual predilections? "Even the sexual decadence is of the clichéd lace and carnival-mark variety," Marshall writes, noting that Christine "lives in an apartment that comes across as a tad too brash and flashy for her character." Which, again, might just be the whole point. As with everything De Palma, style is content. Christine's blonde-blonde hair, pale (sometimes sickly) white skin, red-red lipstick (and sweaters, dresses, and high heels), and black, elaborately-strung lingerie are as much a character-born formation of Powerful Woman as De Palma's inclination towards what he wants to see onscreen. In a recent interview with Film.com, he had this to say about that:
Men have been undressing women in various art forms since the beginning of visual art. You could make this film with two men, but, I mean, all you have to do is look on your television screen or go Googling or pick up a magazine, and what do you see? Women, dressed and undressed. That's what people are interested in.
Isabelle, by contrast, fashions herself a more removed, down-to-Earth, "authentic" "cool boss" type, forever the victim of Christine (until, you know, she's not), and that formation has largely consumed her outward persona. She doesn't know how to land a client at a party, doesn't know how to speak up when Christine steals her idea for an ad, doesn't even know quite how to behave when Christine shares an extended kiss with Dirk, her lover. It's only in private - to her assistant, or to her lover - that we see the truth. She certainly knows what to do and say around a man, and not just any man. Her relationship with Dirk is barely sketched and never described, but it's a whole other dimension to a woman who is apparently too shy to speak to someone at a social gathering. In bed, she's more rawly sexual than Christine's constructed lust, and will slowly unleash a cruelty more personal and pointed than Christine's cold calculations.
The way those two personalities play off one another are key to the film's rather evolved and considered notions of...certainly not good and evil; some reversal of sympathies. Christine may be more outwardly repugnant, unpleasant, and motivated purely by selfishness and greed, but she's never doing any real harm, and is able to view all her actions through the lens of "business." Isabelle, meanwhile, has our sympathies, and we can identify with her more personal motivations, but her ends are drastic and horrific. She's playing the victim just as much as Christine is playing the villain, and her commitment to that role goes down far darker paths.
It's a dicey proposition to try to deduce how much of this is intentional, to what extent the actresses are playing into it, but since when has intent mattered anyway? Christine and Isabelle are playing something they know themselves not to be, and their uncertainties and hesitations are ultimately their undoing. Perhaps that goes for the actresses as well. Part of the challenge of directing is channeling everything an actor has to give - which might include accounting for their weaknesses - towards some artistic effect. However De Palma tuned his instruments, the result is indeed electrifying and playful, but also intriguing, layered, and resonant.