Brian De Palma is on his best behavior for the first hour or so of “Passion,” his English-language adaptation of Alain Corneau’s “Crime d’amour,” the 2010 psychological thriller about a battle between two women in the corporate boardroom that turns into something disturbingly—indeed, fatally—personal. True, he does amp up the lesbian suggestions inherent to the plot, but not to an extreme degree. But then he goes berserk in the final forty minutes, giving the last reels the full De Palma treatment of split screens, weird camera angles and elaborate tracking shots—not to mention a dreamlike, hallucinatory mood that’s a major departure from its cooler, more cerebral source. And yet while the gleefully overripe result is admittedly somewhat balmy, it certainly holds your attention even as its excesses might encourage a giggle or two. This is a guilty pleasure par excellence, the picture the awful “Femme Fatale” aspired but failed dismally to be. And it represents an exhilarating return to the director’s stylish form after the miscalculated grittiness of “Redacted.” Though you can’t logically buy into the movie in the slightest, at least you can enjoy it for the lurid trash it is.
De Palma transfers the story to Germany, where Christine (Rachel McAdams), a svelte, beautiful and ambitious upper-echelon executive at the Berlin branch of a global advertising firm, cultivates her assistant Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), a mousy type who nonetheless has good ideas, including one for a commercial that knocks out the New York owners. But when Christine takes credit for it, hoping it will get her the promotion to the States she wants, Isabelle simmers at the betrayal and plots revenge, which includes bedding Christine’s boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson). Christine responds by humiliating Isabelle in front of the entire office and making it appear that Isabelle has threatened her in response, which sets the stage for a gruesome murder and a subsequent police investigation that ends in the apparent perpetrator being imprisoned. But all is not as it initially appears, as a series of increasingly implausible twists, some of them involving Isabelle’s own assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), ultimately make clear.
Or unclear, since frankly De Palma’s narrative sleight of hand doesn’t result in a plot that really adds up—except in the overheated fashion that some of Dario Argento’s crazier giallos can be said to make sense (watch for a stray reference to Christine’s family, for example). And his visual razzmatazz (abetted by cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, an Almodovar regular), while undoubtedly impressive from a purely cinematic point of view (a split-screen montage that juxtaposes a killing with a ballet based on Debussy is technically pretty amazing), muddies the waters still further. The result is almost a self-parody of the director’s early work, but still it’s impossible to take your eyes off it, however absurd things grow. And with his old colleague Pino Donaggio on hand to provide a background score that’s oddly upbeat until it turns to his customary shrieks toward the close, the likeness to “Carrie” and the films that immediately followed becomes ever more pronounced.
McAdams, Rapace and Herfurth throw themselves into the steamy, hallucinatory world De Palma has created with admirable abandon. Their exuberant overacting is set in even greater relief against the deliberately dull performances of the supporting cast, especially the smarmy Anderson and the cop (Rainer Bock) and prosecutor (Benjamin Sadler) who are ultimately tasked with trying the disentangle the web the script has spun.
There isn’t a way in the world to describe “Passion” as a good film. But especially for those who recall De Palma’s early work with affection, it will prove a perversely enjoyable one.