PassionBrian De Palma / 2013 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Evolving cinematography; Sleazy fun; Thriller setpieces
Side Effects: Rachel McAdams; Dips into camp; Script

[Passion will play at the New York Film Festival on September 29th, October 6th and October 11th.]

Passion has been billed as a return to form for director Brian De Palma. After the dark neo-noir of The Black Dahlia, and Redacted, an Iraq war film using a variety of video formats, Passion is psycho-sexual thriller akin to the 1970s films that made his name as a Hitchcockian craftsman. The film does seem to fit the bill of a genre comeback for De Palma, complete with lusty psychological gamesmanship, a twisting narrative and self aware formalism, but while De Palma devotees may delight in stylistic references to the director’s classic thrillers, it seems to me that the irony—bordering on comedy and camp—of more recent films like Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale is key to understanding this slick, wacky offering.

The film is about the ebbing power dynamics between two high-powered European ad executives: the uptight, deferential Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) and her cutthroat, dangerously sexualized boss Christine (Rachel McAdams). What begins as corporate intrigue quickly turns into a dance of violent seduction between the two women, spilling over into their relationships with Christine’s boy-toy and Isabelle’s doting secretary. In both its front-loaded pace and cool, high-key aesthetic, Passion reminds me of the great, somehow quintessentially European thrillers of Polanski or Chabrol. The script, based on the 2010 French thriller Love Crimes, depends on early interactions among its four central players, almost mathematically charting the trajectories they take as a result of this betrayal or that unwanted sexual advance.

Before I go too far praising Passion for its percolating tensions, I should say that it’s a film I somehow fell backwards into appreciating. De Palma here is operating in a gleefully bizarre, mischievous pitch that made me simultaneously roll my eyes and want to keep watching. Between the decadent, operatic score by Pino Donaggio and McAdams’ hammy performance, De Palma consistently makes strange, (mockingly?) melodramatic directorial choices. By the time McAdams slides into a bubble bath with candles and some steamy sax music I couldn’t figure out if the audience’s laughter was intended or not. It doesn’t matter, though; Passion is certainly fun.

Even if the film’s tone is a train wreck for you, and it very well might be, there’s plenty to appreciate stylistically. The cinematography by frequent Pedro Almodóvar collaborator José Luis Alcaine is refreshingly bright and basic in the film’s first half, slowly slipping into dramatic shadows and Dutch angles as Rapace becomes unhinged. The film also features a breathtaking use of De Palma’s signature split-screen, juxtaposing a staged ballet performance with murderous machinations. It’s impeccably choreographed and perfectly timed, an expression of the pure cinematic joy of mounting suspense. It’s so good that it only left me more mystified by the film’s campy pitch. Perhaps De Palma doesn’t want any of his material—silly or serious—to get in the way of the fun of filmmaking.