Brian De Palma’s Passion: “Self-plagiarism is style”
“It’s disappointing because I’ve had it my whole career. There are all the De Palma tropes that they list. You know, Hitchcockian, overdramatic, whatever it is. They go down the list and it’s like, “what’s that got do with this movie?” If anyone doesn’t see the beauty in this movie, I don’t know what they are looking at. I love when they say, “shoddy” or “trashy.” What movie are they seeing?” – Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma’s Passion (2012) is a sexual-thriller/neo-noir that is a vibrant and plot-twist filled remake of Alain Corneau’s Crime d’amour (2010). Corbeau’s thriller was an excellent thriller starring a devious Kristin Scott Thomas and a pouty-lipped Ludivine Sagnier. Passion stars the beautiful Rachel McAdams and the stunning Noomi Rapace in the lead roles as Christine Standford and Isabelle James, respectively. De Palma’s postmodern remake/Hitchcockian mash-up combined with significant moments of self-plagiarism is one of the most cinematic thrillers I have seen in years and ranks among the top tier of De Palma’s filmography.De Palma’s Passion takes the elements, characterizations, and structure from Crime d’amour only to then dispose of Corneau’s third-act, or disassemble it, and then re-assemble the pieces via plot twists De Palma used in previous films (Dressed to Kill (1980) and Femme Fatale (2002)). This process of destruction-construction is what allows De Palma’s film to rise above a mere English language remake of a French thriller to become a film about films, a pure exercise in pastiche filmmaking that De Palma made popular in the Eighties and inspired Quentin Tarantino to do the same.
Just how like the main character, Laure Ash (played by Rebecca Romijn), in Femme Fatale watches Double Indemnity (1944) taking notes from Phyllis Dietrichson, the archetype for femme fatales in film noir, De Palma is taking notes from his previous neo-noirs when he reworked Crime d’amour. The characters in Passion are not so much characters as they are archetypes, abstractions that somehow have more flesh and life than characters seen in recent thrillers (i.e. Side Effects (2013)). De Palma hired Jose Luis Alcana, Pedro Almodovar’s long-time collaborator, to light Passion because of his ability to photography beautiful women and photograph them well. The desire to create beautiful images out of Rapace and McAdams also figured into De Palma’s choice about whether to shoot this film digitally or on celluloid. In an interview with Daniel Kasman from Mubi Notebook, De Palma talks about why he made this choice:
“KASMAN: It’s getting so confusing now; things shot on film are projected digitally, digitally shot movies are projected on film. Your movie, Redacted, was a specifically digital project. Was shooting on 35mm something you wanted for Passion from the start?
DE PALMA: If you have beautiful locations and beautiful women and you want to light them correctly, you shoot on film. Digital hasn’t really gotten to the level of the classic, beautiful photography we remember from yesterday.
KASMAN: Was it nice to be back shooting on 35mm after the experience with Redacted?
DE PALMA: Well, it’s kind of strange to see them loading [film] magazines that can only do takes of a certain length. You don’t have that problem shooting digitally. No—it’s the lighting, you’re shooting beautiful women, beautiful locations, you have very stylized lighting. I haven’t seen this done digitally well yet, but I’m sure they’ll get there.”
De Palma’s last film, Redacted (2007), was shot on Video (HDTV) and then exhibited on film whereas Passion was shot on 35 mm and exhibited digitally in most cinemas. But, even if cinemas have switched over to inferior digital projection equipment, De Palma’s/Alcana stunning work shines through. There are certainly moments of the type of stylized lighting critics associate with film noir in both Dressed to Kill, Blow Out (1981), Femme Fatale, and even in Body Double (1984), but Passion features some stunning film noir influenced photography that most critics have unfortunately overlooked or criticized.
The deconstruction work of Passion does not come until the second act of the film. In Crime d’amour, Isabelle kills Christine and the way Corneau staged the sequence does away with any suspense that it could have had by showing us who the murderer and foregoing any lead-up that would hint at forthcoming violence. De Palma takes this sequence and modifies it significantly by filming and cutting it in split-screen and having the killer done a white mask so the audience does not know who the killer is. Even if the spectator has seen Corneau’s film, they are not given definite evidence from De Palma’s remake whether Isabelle has killed Christine or not. Furthermore, De Palma stages the murder by knife similar to Hitchcock’s shower sequence in Psycho (1960), obscuring the identity of the killer and showing the knife thrusts and blood splatter. This change in narrative register, from third person to first person via a POV shot of the killer, allows De Palma to play with audience expectations until the end of the film.
Playing with audience expectations, playing with genre, playing with films, and his own cinema, De Palma’s film is ultimately about deconstruction and play. De Palma’s filmic-play is what imbues the film with its comic element and leads the film to self-parody territory (Passion would be a self-parody if it De Palma’s execution was not so masterful). While most reviewers have described this element of Passion as one of its faults, it is a strength and one that De Palma uses to its full potential. De Palma is not serious (or boring) enough to forget his playful tendencies when spinning a thriller. Dream sequences, ghostly appearances of Christine’s twin sister (fictional or real), double-crosses and numerous false endings make every new twist seem even more absurd, which eventually drains the film of its suspense, replacing tension with comic enjoyment.