Passion is a film built on misdirects and ambiguity, a moody, ’70s-like pulp thriller that consistently entertains through its implausibilities. This is absurdist suspense at its finest, for there are so many character actions that seem ridiculous and an over-acting ensemble that make the film feel like a soap opera. Yet I can’t deny the talent behind the screen in Brian De Palma, who shows that he’s having a blast with some strange and rather weak material. He’s fluid in his range, often employing long, winding takes; he’s a joy to watch, particularly when he experiments in later parts of the film. He makes the main performances by Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams feel even more serious than we’re already being told. Rapace and McAdams are both fine, but their roles are more built on their sensuality and ability to manipulate. They excel at that.
The film centers on an aspiring woman named Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace) who works for an international advertising firm that’s headed by Christine Stanford (Rachel McAdams). They work well together, often helping each other on campaigns and thinking alike. When Christine takes credit for an ingenious idea that Isabelle has involving putting a camera in the back pocket of a girl wearing tight jeans, a feud slowly builds between them and Christine shows how tenacious she can be. She’s a piece of work who enjoys kinky sex with her boyfriend, Dirk (Paul Anderson), who’s also having a fling with Isabelle. That adds more fuel to the fire, and Isabelle’s assistant, Dani (Karoline Herfurth) is attracted to her boss, leading to even more sexual tension and backstabbing between the four.
Brian De Palma has handled sexuality in many of his works, with one of his finest being Femme Fatale in 2002. He has a knack for dissecting characters’ actions rather than drawing great moments out of the dialogue; everything here is far too overdone when words come out of a character’s mouth. Yet the actions pop and look stunning, with De Palma infusing the film with prominent lighting cues and a hue that’s reminiscent of ’70s thrillers. The score is also largely wind-based, leading to an obvious mood in almost every scene; those elements hold the film back from being anything truly special. Brilliantly composed scenes like one midway through the film, in which De Palma juxtaposes interwoven scenes and changes the aspect ratios, will stay with me for a long while.
The second half’s stronger than the first, even if the ending has far more twists than necessary. Isabelle is created as a psychologically devastated individual, popping pills and being unsure of how to maintain a romantic relationship. Christine often flirts with Isabelle, kissing her occasionally and asking her to love her. Christine is defined by her power, asking for attention and begging for others to fall prey. She’s manipulative, cold, and sexy, which McAdams showcases pretty well. Rapace’s role works near the end of the film far more than it does in the beginning, since the film’s full of explicit character motivations that don’t leave much to the imagination. But when the film begins to exist in a weird dream world, and ends in reflective ambiguity, the movie makes us think about the absurdity we’ve just witnessed. It’s a messy piece of entertainment.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)