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By Andrew Tracy
Allow for the possibility that perspective can trump prejudice, I suppose. Eight months after seeing Brian De Palma’s Passion and thinking it ludicrous (probably intentional) and dreadful (presumably not), I’ve since scaled it back to the former—though the fact that it isn’t dreadful does not ipso facto mean it’s any fucking good. This somewhat reluctant reconsideration was occasioned by a revisiting of a good chunk of the De Palma oeuvre in preparation for an intended grand reckoning with one of my cinematic bêtes noires in Cinema Scope 53, and which instead ended up merely as a review of Chris Dumas’ Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible (consider what follows some flotsam from that previously scuttled endeavour). What that partial investigation unexpectedly yielded was a greater understanding of, if not agreement with, those who sing the De Palma praises—there was indeed a there there, though one that the man himself has often done much to obstruct. To paraphrase Raymond Bellour’s poetic (and somewhat silly) maxim about Fritz Lang, what De Palma so often evinces is an ability to lie carried to the point of tragedy, or at least to the point of being a darn shame.
Artifice, of course, has been De Palma’s stock in trade from more or less the very beginning of his career. But even as his early, neo-nouvelle vague riffs Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970) exulted in their metacinematic shenanigans, they were also, explicitly, interrogations of the same regime of images in which they participated. The David Holzman’s Diary-like opening of De Palma’s remarkable, if ultimately enervating first feature Murder à la Mod (1968)—in which two women in succession reluctantly disrobe for the camera at the behest of an unseen male director—displays a filmmaker who has an intuitive understanding of the power of images, and the power to make images. That same primal scene has resonated throughout De Palma’s subsequent films, most directly in the screen test sequence in the definitively dreadful The Black Dahlia (2006), most powerfully in the final montage sequence of Redacted (2007), where, as per Chris Marker’s musings in The Last Bolshevik (1992), artifice steps in to provide the truth that official reality has occluded.
It’s thus a shame that De Palma, who at certain points has spoken so powerfully and eloquently of the necessity of images, has devoted so much of his time to producing images that are knowingly gratuitous, that smirk at their own existence and attest to their own needlessness. Dumas, through both speculation and direct statements, offers some telling testimony as to a strain of self-disgust in De Palma for his active pursuit of success in the Hollywood system that fucked him over the first time out on his maiden studio assignment Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972). This might go some way to explaining the sourness of so much of De Palma’s humour, the curdled amusement rather than exultant glee of his various provocations. In so many of De Palma’s distinctively lugubrious, literally show-stopping set pieces I see nothing so much as a filmmaker flipping himself the bird, undercutting his own obvious emulations by relentlessly hyperbolizing them. One could posit (as Dumas tentatively does) that De Palma is undertaking a kind of critical project from within the belly of the beast: that his baroque affectations are autocritiques of that ubiquity of images in which he now actively participates, are both the things-in-themselves and an interrogation thereof. But down that particular rabbit hole, methinks, lies ultimately (if not at once) mere opportunism and/or self-defeat. “Femme Fatale was about people who model themselves on Double Indemnity; this is about people who model themselves on Femme Fatale,” enthused a colleague to me post-(and re:) Passion, a commendation which, to these eyes, looks more like a formula for diminishing one’s returns down to around nil.
Femme Fatale (2002), at least, was one of the nimbler and more lightly entertaining of De Palma’s certified copies, and—in its amusingly silly wake-in-fright narrative conceit that gives its slinky anti-heroine (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) a second shot at redemption—perhaps something of a personal testament as well. Where De Palma views Passion in relation to the (relative, oh so relative) “purity” of its Euro-co-pro predecessor is evident from their respective opening images: in Femme Fatale, the camera pulls leftwards through a small hotel room to reveal Romijn-Stamos, derrière vers nous, wordlessly watching Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) on French TV; in Passion, it drifts right through a luxuriously appointed flat to finally fix on the face-forwards Christine (Rachel McAdams) and Isabel (Noomi Rapace) staring intently at the unseen screen of a laptop (Apple logo on prominent display) and discussing the ad campaign they’re formulating for a nameless mobile phone company. Just as the Old World glamour of FF’s Parisian locations is supplanted by the clean, sleek sterility of globalized urbanism in Passion’s Berlin, so the romantically retro amorality of Romijn-Stamos’ lone-wolf bandette (no matter that she herself is an imitation of a prior model) gives way to the slick facelessness and infinite replaceability of corporate culture—which De Palma wastes no time in underlining, the superficial contrast between dark, Goth-dowdy Isabel and porcelain-skinned, blonde-tressed Christine quickly followed by the appearance of the face-covering Eyes Wide Shut (1999) mask that Christine employs in her rather rotely kinky sexual game-playing.
Rote, indeed, is the rule here. Remaking Alain Corneau’s 2010 Euro-thriller Crime d’amour, De Palma seems to sardonically relish his plangently predictable set-up, as meek creative type Isabel falls under the spell of Christine’s smiling corporate shark both professionally and personally, the mother-daughter dynamic of the Corneau replaced (no surprise) by teasing Sapphism. Naturally, the claws soon come out after Christine hijacks Isabel’s campaign idea, and Isabel deftly swipes it back by sending her video viral. (Others found the exclamation that Isabel’s video has garnered “Ten million views in five hours!” funnier than did I.) The one-upmanship comes ever thicker and faster as the ladies jockey for position, until the corporate cut-throating inevitably gets literal in De Palma’s designated showcase sequence: a split-screen juxtaposition of Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun ballet and a stalk n’ slash in Christine’s luxe pad, which naturally sees the return of that telltale kink-mask.
So what’s this all about, then? Despite the low vs. high dialectic—building from pervy voyeurism both private (an unwisely made sex tape) and public (Isabel’s “ass-cam” campaign) to lipstick lesbianism to culminate in the jugular-spraying slaying pointedly set against Robbins’ lovely pas de deux—Passion is saying nothing of substance about cultural relativism or commodification. Nor do the non-people that are Isabel and Christine warrant any kind of vested interest from the viewer in the barely skin-deep “drama” of their confrontation. Indeed, by ramping the wrought well over the top with such scenes as Christine tearfully telling the obviously false (?) tale of her twin sister’s tragic death (probably the film’s most smirkily amusing moment) or Isabel’s pillar-smashing, sprinkler-activating parking garage freak-out, De Palma guarantees that there is not a thing here to take seriously.
What remains, then, is simply that: remains. With its (admittedly guffaw-inducing) final title card the bookend to the prolonged joke that begins with its title, Passion is a knowingly gratuitous object that perversely—and, despite its sniggers, essentially mirthlessly—seeks to make its gratuitousness into purpose; it’s autocritique as self-negation. When, in the final third, De Palma suddenly switches to grossly canted angles and absurdly pronounced eroto-thriller Venetian-blind lighting, what is the joke on but the very existence of the stale eroto-thriller that is Passion itself—and in the final, absurd dash to The End (literally), as De Palma buries us in a Russian-doll’s nest of dreams-within-dreams and a WTF (or WTF-cares) lift from Dressed to Kill (1980), what is the target of his mockery if not much of what he has ever done, the great majority of which were mockeries themselves. As he’s already cribbed his film’s title from Godard, De Palma may just as well have called it Contempt.