Watching Passion, the latest film from noted auteur and generally inconsistent filmmaker Brian De Palma, feels a lot like getting caught watching low-grade 1980s softcore Cinemax porn by a fatherly figure that lets loose a giant fart when he walks into the room. It’s embarrassing and morbidly funny to see happen, but that doesn’t make it a pleasant experience. A failed “return to form” and throwback to his 70s and 80s sleazefests that throw political correctness and subtlety to the wind, Passion fails to generate any heat or interest because it’s just a lazy, lifeless retread of things he’s already attempted and succeeded at before.
Christine (Rachel McAdams) and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) work at a European ad agency putting together a campaign for cell phones. They have an uneasy sexual attraction to each other compounded by Christine’s underhanded managerial techniques that result in her stealing Isabelle’s idea to market the phone based around a super sexy “ass cam” gimmick designed to make leering men and curious women stare directly into the phone while checking out the owner’s posterior. Isabelle’s hurt feelings throw a bucket of water on Christine’s affections, leading to the boss manipulating, blackmailing, and undercutting her underling at every turn. They’re also both sleeping with the same guy (Paul Anderson), Isabelle’s assistant (Karoline Herfurth) is also a lesbian with a crush, and in typical De Palma fashion there’s something about a secret twin sister and an ending straight out of the French New Wave playbook.
De Palma’s slick aesthetic and ability to creatively shoot even mundane sequences are intact, but outside of a passing resemblance to his past efforts there’s nothing here to rank with the sexploitation flicks he based his career on. For a film about fashionable people it looks disarmingly cheap and has a distinct made-for-TV feel to it. The bar seems set pretty low for success all around in the first hour where it initially appears to be so terrible that De Palma might have been going for self parody the whole time. The jokes just aren’t that funny, and instead of someone commenting on their past body of work or relishing in being a leering old man, it seems more like one man laughing at the audience instead. The idea that De Palma could even laugh about turning in something he clearly copied from his other work is ludicrous, and even worse, mind numbingly boring. The only real mind games he plays with the viewer are when they question if they should actually be laughing at what they’re seeing or feel sad about it.
Take for example a scene where a frustrated Isabelle attempts to escape work and smashes up her vehicle trying to get out of the car park. It’s a sequence of such misplaced hysteria it makes the vehicular hijinks of the first Austin Powers film look downright subtle in comparison. After smashing into a post, she takes off wildly into a free standing Coca-Cola vending machine (which has no business being in a car park, anyway, but whatever) and then setting off the garage’s sprinkler system so she can have a mental breakdown in the rain. It’s hilarious to watch, but who is the joke ultimately for? I would guess it’s for De Palma, but it’s hard to even take the sequence serious on a comic level. A more successful bit of telling jokes only the director and his fervent cult of defenders would get would be the split-screen sequence that features a ballet on the left side (with dancers looking square into the camera to break the fourth wall and looking every bit like an American Apparel advert) and an asinine conversation and wordless montage on the right.
The performances don’t fare much better, but there are some bright spots. McAdams flirts and vamps to the heavens, going so far over the top one would be inclined to worry she isn’t getting enough oxygen where she is. It fits the tone of the movie, but she either hasn’t seen many De Palma films before this to know how to integrate and assert herself or the director simply doesn’t care and has no idea what to do with her performance. Rapace, on the other hand, starts off shaky before the film’s admittedly better second half finally ends up giving her something to do other than stammer and look confused. Anderson fares the worst of all, stumbling through sequences that only allow him to be twitchy and arrogant, but at least he can smoke, drink, and breathe heavily like a champ. The best would have to be Herfurth, who seems to immediately understand what it means to be in a De Palma film, and who combined with Rapace, allows the second half to come to mildly come to life after flatlining for the better part of an hour.
Even though the film comes closest to aping De Palma’s better works down the stretch, the film has already established itself as emotionally and tonally inconsistent. Instead of feeling like a modern take on established tropes like De Palma probably intended it to be, it feels like a half workshopped idea that was dragged out of a time capsule buried in 1982 that was unearthed and shot without a single change. It makes one pine for almost any other film De Palma has made in his career, and considering how many questionable films he’s made in the past two decades alone, that speaks a lot to the disappointment of watching him struggle to even get on base with this material. He still knows where to put the camera and his cheeky sensibilities can get him out of a tough situation, but neither skill adds anything to this lifeless debacle.