'Passion' review: Brian De Palma's latest film is not great, but still fun to watch

It’s a woman’s world in “Passion,” Brian De Palma’s slick, but often clumsy, neo noir. An English-language remake of the French “Crime d’Amour,” “Passion” returns De Palma, after a hiatus of nearly half a decade, to his origins; the indelible steamy pastiche thrillers of the 1970s, which earned him the honor of becoming one of America’s most exciting film makers. With De Palma you know you’re in for a little Hitchcock, sex, obsession, split personalities and a fetish for manipulation. In “Passion,” De Palma delivers all that is expected of his films, but he's just not as articulate as he once was.

Noomi Rapace is Isabelle, a naïve advertising creative who cooks up with a winning spot for a new cell phone brand only to have the credit stolen by her CEO, Christine (Rachel McAdams), who is both sexually obsessed with and jealous of her protégé. Christine and Isabelle form a game of intrigue as the domineering and malicious CEO tries to seduce and systematically destroy Isabelle in the high tech European corporate world.  

While the story is as delicious as any of De Palma’s best work, it is plagued by mediocre acting. Noomi Rapace does an adequate job as Isabelle, bouncing from naiveté to distraught to fury, but she just isn’t engaging enough to command full attention. She also has to compete with De Palma’s soapy dialogue. Rachel McAdams has played the "bad girl" stereotype incredibly well, as witnessed in the hilarious “Mean Girls.” She can deliver murder with a grin and a twinkle in the eye, but her opaque delivery in “Passion” is so stilted and awkward it’s often cringe-worthy. Though she doesn’t seem to be able to handle the juiciness of De Palma’s melodrama, one the main reasons for her sub-par performance is the film’s editing.

A De Palma trademark is the un-edited lingering camera on a subject, letting suspense build naturally in real time. When presented with an undoubtedly talented actor, this technique can do wonders for the film. Although the lengthy shots in “Passion” are aesthetically pleasing, they do the film an injustice by revealing many of the movie’s warts. Rachel McAdams, especially, is given her fair share of juicy monologues but she just isn’t capable to do the role justice, and watching her struggle in a single, long take to be menacing sours the film. De Palma clearly chose aesthetics over performance, and it’s disappointing that a balance wasn’t reached because editing indeed can make or break a performance, and here it shatters McAdams.

One of the most fascinating aspects of a De Palma film is that he often pushes melodrama to the brink of trashiness, then about-faces and contrasts with a masterfully elegant, methodical sequence. “Passion” doesn’t necessarily go to either extreme, instead runs middle of the road. The melodrama is overripe, for sure, and while he never gets too trashy here, De Palma does deliver and standout sequence utilizing his beloved split screen technique as Debussy’s ballet “Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune” is performed on the left and a murder occurs on the right.

The first half of the film is a fairly traditional potboiler and a little clunky in its plotting and performances, but the second half really kicks into gear as De Palma picks up his magic tricks. He is a master at manipulating the audience, but he doesn’t completely succeed at manipulating this time around. Every look or line from McAdams or Rapace is so forced and obvious that little is left to the imagination. De Palma inadvertently makes it obvious what is coming, who and why someone is going to die and how it will happen.  For all those obvious old-school tricks, De Palma does manage something remarkably fresh and unsettling, though. There is a good 25 to 30 minutes of the film where the picture becomes angular and the chiaroscuro lighting is maxed out and it’s unclear if we are witnessing a dream or reality. This is where De Palma really excels.

Though “Passion” is dominated by a female cast of characters overwrought with malice, melodrama and obsession who leers over drunk, sniveling and pathetic men, De Palma isn’t exactly critiquing any gender but inverting an age-old story. There are countless films about men backstabbing each other in a corporate environment, and either gender would sop up the soup of these melodramatic parts. De Palma, as usual, is painting a canvas of obsession and insanity and his modus operandi this time just happens to be with a strong female cast rather than the opposite.

One of the great joys of any De Palma film is getting swept up in the cinematography, editing and music. Whether or not the acting or story work in any given De Palma film, you can almost guarantee a masterful aural and visual canvas. De Palma’s frequent composer Pino Donaggio’s noirish score fervently delivers seduction and suspense from start to finish. José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography is visceral and striking; shots pop like a sleek magazine ad and often lingers right on the edge of inclusion, as if the audience is watching a psychological experiment from behind a double mirror.  

Struggling with warts and all, “Passion” is a loopy but fun late-night thriller brimming with style and vitality from one of America’s most exciting film makers.

“Passion” opens in limited theaters on August 30 and is available now On-Demand.

Entertainment One. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 1 hour and 38 minutes.