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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Brian De Palma's Passion; or, hooked on classicism

Posted By on 09.12.13 at 03:05 PM

Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams are De Palmas latest bad girls.
  • Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams are De Palma's latest bad girls.
Brian De Palma's Passion came to town last Saturday for a surprise weeklong run at the Music Box Theatre, and continues through the weekend as a midnight show. I caught up with the film the other night with an audience of 15 or 20 (the Music Box's main auditorium hadn't felt so cavernous since that midnight screening of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls a few months back), and I was surprised not to have seen more people in the room. The movie finds De Palma at his most playful (or grandiose, depending on your point of view) since Femme Fatale—it's the sort of movie his fans usually eat right up. (I'm not even a De Palma fan, and I had loads of fun watching it.) As for what the movie's "about," allow me to recycle this passage from Jonathan Rosenbaum's 2002 Reader essay on Femme Fatale, as it applies equally to Passion:

[It's] as if [De Palma] set out to combine every previous thriller he'd made in one hyperbolically frothy cocktail. So we get split-screen framing; bad girls; sweetie-pie male suckers; verbal and physical abuse; lots of blood... lyrically rendered catastrophes; noirish lighting schemes favoring venetian blinds; it-was-all-a-dream plot twists; scrambled and recomposed plot mosaics; obsessional repetitions of sound and image; pastiches of familiar musical pieces; nearly constant camera movements; and ceiling-height camera angles. Best of all, we often get several of these things simultaneously.

I'm not sure if De Palma himself considers Passion to be "about" anything. In the movie's most impressive set piece, Noomi Rapace's character watches a ballet production of Afternoon of a Faun while, on the other side of the split-screen, her business rival (Rachel McAdams) gets murdered in a characteristically (for De Palma) elaborate way. Is the filmmaker equating his filmmaking with more abstract arts like symphonic music or dance? (The title would seem to suggest as much.) De Palma has repeated certain motifs so many times that they no longer refer to anything besides themselves. Passion often seems to be after the sort of formal purity that Keats saw in his Grecian urn, with the qualities listed by Rosenbaum serving as De Palma's clay.

Many of the compositions exhibit classical virtues of symmetry and opposition. De Palma regularly dresses the dark-haired Rapace in all-black and the blonde McAdams in white or red. Even before De Palma starts introducing preposterous coincidences and double crosses, the characters register as doppelgangers—Rapace's flat underplaying seems intended to compliment McAdams's exuberant hamminess (which is a hoot, by the way). Likewise, the women's professional rivalry—a totally arbitrary power struggle within a multinational advertising firm—is underscored by intimations of sexual attraction. Once De Palma establishes these basic oppositions, he goes wild finding different ways to recombine—and re-double—them. When McAdams's character confesses to having a twin sister, it feels inevitable.

Passion is a superficial film, but not an empty one. Amidst in the visual motifs, De Palma manages to touch on the following themes: corporate power, advertising, sexual desire, sadomasochistic relationships, and longing for love. The movie doesn't offer a coherent statement about any of these subjects, though De Palma interweaves them with a musicality comparable to his visual style. There's an odd poignancy to those moments where the themes related to dominance intersect with those related to vulnerability, suggesting that the pursuit of classical synthesis carries the risk of annihilation.

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