There have been few American filmmakers over the past 50 years who have had as eclectic and as continually surprising a career as Brian De Palma. From his first feature, Murder à la Mod in 1968, a playful and occasionally bizarre low-budget film where seeds of De Palma's future cinematic preoccupations were already on display, to his politically provocative and structurally experimental Redacted in 2007, De Palma has had as many ups and downs and hits and misses as any filmmaker of his generation. In between, the science student standout turned contemporary master of suspense has achieved fame through his most renowned films, notoriety through his most controversial (usually based on false accusations of misogyny or only partly-false accusations of Hitchcock rip-offery), and he has become tragically neglected as some of his best films have been overshadowed by their Hollywood stature and star power (how many people know that he was the man behind Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission: Impossible (1996)?).
But for many De Palma fans, and I count myself among his most ardent, each and every film of his yields moments of staggering innovation, virtuosic technique, and a seemingly endless ambition to do something new with the tools of his cinematic trade. As such, I'll confess from the outset that with the release of his latest film, Passion, with Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace (the latter one of the most captivating and talented actresses working today), I had the highest of hopes and was pretty sure that no matter how the film turned out, there would at least be portions of typically De Palma brilliance. In the end, these expectations were surely met. Passion is a fine film, exuberant, daring, and cinematically flashy. Granted, it's nowhere near the caliber of his greatest work (for example, the 1-2-3 punch of Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), and Scarface (1983)), nor is it, however, anywhere near his lesser films, liked the much maligned Wise Guys (1986) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Passion is a film by a director fully aware of why and how his films are special; and he's confident enough to revel in these particular talents. If anything, its apparent effortlessness is deceiving. This is De Palma doing what he does best: it's a taut, sexual, suspenseful, violent, and visually dazzling film. There are flaws (the dialogue, performances early in the picture), but for De Palma admirers and those who admire films similar, it really has it all.
Set against the ultra-modern world of an advertising agency fraught with deceit and ruthless ambition, McAdams is Christine Stanford, boss and friend to Rapace's Isabelle James, her protégée. In De Palma fashion, Isabelle also harbors more than a professional preoccupation with Christine. There is an obsessiveness in her devotion, something the two of them are clearly uncomfortable with. When Isabelle's desire and delusion runs up against the desire and ruthlessness of Christine, the complexity of their personal and professional relationship comes to a head and one form of aggression and manipulation follows upon another. It's a sort of psychological twisting and turning not uncommon to some of De Palma's best thrillers. Added to this level of mental torment is the sexual tension running as a combustible undercurrent through all of the main characters. And then, in its kaleidoscopic third act, comes the wave of hallucinatory violence. In this trifecta of psychological distress, erotic infatuation, and stylized, elaborate violence (even with trademark split-screen), you get three key ingredients of any successful De Palma film.
Now, I will concede that there is considerably more style than substance here. De Palma is a visual artist far more than he is one concerned with richly developed characters and a depth of intellectual meaning in his narratives (though some of his films have had these). That is not to say, however, that Passion lacks in either good characters or intriguing drama. Certainly, the final portions of the film are so perplexing and ambiguous that one is left to ponder over the proceedings and motivations long after the conclusion. A jumbled mess of incongruities to some, reason for analysis for others.
This type of division will carry over to the film as a whole. One's reception to Passion will largely depend on one's expectations. It's safe to say that nobody really makes films like De Palma these days, and knowing this, Passion will not be like most other American films. This will no doubt work for and against it. I'd say the best barometer for how well Passion is going to succeed is to base it on individual opinions of previous De Palma features, films like Sisters (1973), Body Double (1984) and Femme Fatale (2002). This is the mode De Palma is operating in here. Passion is a true return to form for aficionados of his work, and it's a good introduction to his brand of distinct filmmaking for those less acquainted.