Sometimes a remake can provide an auteur the greatest canvas. David Cronenberg’s The Fly ('86) takes George Langelaan’s short story and completely re-jiggers it, producing a film that's superior to Kurt Neumann’s '58 original, by placing the final product in line with the Canadian director’s slimiest of works. Similarly, John Carpenter’s The Thing ('82) takes John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There? and sticks closer to the text than Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World ('51), resulting in one of the great sci-fi creature features of all time, that's similarly of a piece with its director's widescreen horror canon. While Brian De Palma didn't use a piece of literature as his jumping off point for recreation, Passion ('12) is an analogous improvement over Alain Corneau’s forgettable Love Crime ('10), in that it finds the director returning back to his old erotic thriller bag of tricks. Though the end result is a personal act of re-styling, it's often critiqued by many as a late-period misfire that isn't up to snuff with the rest of his classic body of work.
Crafting a shocker in the vein of his stylish, paranoid ’80s output (most notably Dressed to Kill ['80]) while adding in a healthy dose of bisexual betrayal, De Palma takes the source film and remolds it into a work that is distinctly his own. A tale of two lethal femme fatales attempting to climb the corporate ladder, Passion is a lurid, nasty affair that will hopefully remind most viewers that the “erotic thriller” (a genre sadly neglected since the ’90s) is in desperate need of a revival.
De Palma has been criticized for years for having his camera take the place of the “male gaze”; objectifying his often scantily clad female leads, thus negating most of the power his scripts often supply them. Passion - for all its odd flaws - turns that criticism on its head, as not only are Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace’s ad execs versed in the ways of how a mostly male-driven business exploits their sex, they utilize it as a tool for the campaigns they mastermind (the “ass cam” Rapace’s character brainstorms becoming a manifestation of this idea). Yet in Passion, not only are the two queens using the lecherous eyes of men to sell jeans, they utilize the main male in their lives (Paul Anderson) as a means to try and undermine each other's vie for power as they one up each other, their battle for managerial supremacy quickly spiraling out of control.
As the cat and mouse game escalates - their tug-o-war set to a conspicuously smooth Pino Donaggio score - the weaponized sex the two share (at one point literally) leads to a crack in both of their psyches. Signaled by the usage of one of De Palma’s trademark split-screen sequences, Passion becomes quite possibly the director’s most surreal bit of work since Sisters ('76), and an extension of the "American giallo" he'd been perfecting since Dressed to Kill.
Following the grisly murder, the movie transforms into a kind of dreamy police procedural, nightmares blending with reality, causing the viewer to question every event that transpires. Once the final frame is reached, it’s still not completely clear which woman, if any, is the victor.
There’s something to be said about De Palma’s choice of setting in the Berlin ad office: a towering building made entirely of glass. Not only does it feel like an on-the-nose visual representation of the “ceiling” all female employees face as they navigate the current corporate climate, but also a metaphor for the lack of transparency these backstabbers share. While the audience can see through the walls of this crystal shrine to capitalism, each character holds up a shield of deception to stop the other from seeing their next move. It’s a brilliant bit of location scouting, as De Palma yet again finds a perfect way to convey an idea without using a single word.
Passion also seems to revel in the ways that technological evolution has brought change to both voyeurism and pornography (two of the director’s favorite topics - see: Body Double ['84] for the best combination of the two). A self-made sex tape plays a massive role in the movie’s narrative, as do security cameras, video conferencing, iPhones and Skype. De Palma is commenting on the way that technology allows us to document not only our own lives and sexual appetites, but to be connected and spied on at all times. There is no escape from the constant watchful eye, and anybody could become their own personal Big Brother by simply reaching into their pocket or logging on to their computer.
In the end, the key question must be: does the movie work as a thriller? To this, there's really no clear cut answer. Like many works in De Palma’s oeuvre, the thrill doesn’t so much come from narrative as it does technicality. For De Palma haters, the movie could smack of self-parody. The final third contains so many dream-within-a-dream moments that it almost feels like the legendary director is purposefully screwing with the audience, cracking wise behind the camera with a great big "holy mackerel" grin on his face.
However, for fans of the auteur, Passion is no doubt a reminder of just how great De Palma can be when he lets the “geeky science kid” inside of him run wild, noodling with form like a great jazz guitarist after all but his greatest admirers have exited the club at 1 AM. In this way, Passion is De Palma playing to swooning enthusiasts only; busting out greatest hits and deep cuts in equal measure as he tries to make you forget that he’s really playing somebody else’s music.