Brian De Palma directs Rachel McAdams, left, and Noomi Repace in "Passion." (Guy Ferrandis / SBS Productions )
Brian De Palma has been a figure of flash point intensity and argument throughout his career, from his intertwined explorations of sex and violence in "Dressed to Kill," "Blow Out" and "Body Double" to such giddy popcorn landmarks as "Scarface," "The Untouchables" and "Mission: Impossible."
A true lover and student of movies, he is a regular presence at the Toronto International Film Festival whether he has a new film or not, but this year De Palma will be there to present his "Passion" just a few days after its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.The movie is a remake of Alain Corneau's 2010 French thriller "Love Crime," which starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier as a seasoned executive and an up-and-comer locked into a dynamic of flirtation and manipulation that turns deadly.
Pauline Kael, writing about De Palma's 1976 film "Carrie" — coincidentally enough itself being remade by Kimberly Peirce with Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role — declared the filmmaker as having "the wickedest baroque sensibility at large in American movies." His movies come less frequently nowadays, but his sly sense of self-reference, his own heightened awareness of the Brian De Palma-ness of a Brian De Palma film, hasn't abated with age, making his take on someone else's film both a devilish thriller all its own and a fascinating study in directorial authority. A masterful student of genre mechanics, De Palma this time tinkers under someone else's hood.
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The bones of both stories are by and large the same, as a more senior corporate executive (Rachel McAdams in "Passion") steals the credit for an idea from a colleague (Noomi Rapace in the remake). Both personal and professional intrigues abound, full of minor humiliations and major flirtations, bringing the simmering connection between the women to a boil as feelings erupt into dangerous actions. The story of who does what to whom and why is at once simple and complicated.
Perhaps De Palma's most notable change — he wrote the script with an "additional dialogue" credit to Natalie Carter, co-writer with Corneau on the original film — is transforming the relationship between the women from a perverse mentorship in the ways of business and power into a fierce competition by casting McAdams and Rapace in the roles. Where Thomas and Sagnier are separated in age by some 20 years, McAdams and Rapace are barely a year apart. He also repeatedly nudges the audience off-balance with a teasing slippage between the film's reality and the dream life of Rapace's character.
"I saw there were many good things about it, and I saw there were many things I thought I could improve," said De Palma, on the phone from Paris, where he has lived on and off in recent years in addition to New York, of his impression upon seeing "Love Crime" for the first time. "I think it's very difficult to, let's say, remake a classic. This had things that could be made better when you remade it."
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Saïd Ben Saïd, producer of both "Love Crime" and "Passion," noted that for all its stylish De Palma-esque intrigues, the filmmaker was never a reference point on the original for the eclectic Corneau. Rather Corneau, who died in 2010 after finishing "Love Crime," saw himself making a Patricia Highsmith story via Mike Nichols' "Working Girl."
"According to me, the movies, they don't tell the same story. The movies are really very different," said Saïd. "In Brian's movie you never know what they have in mind, what's a dream and what's reality, if they lie or if they tell the truth, they are both very manipulative, very dangerous. I think Brian brought all his obsessions to this movie."
"Passion," heading onto the festival circuit without U.S. distribution, was shot last spring in Berlin. Working with cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, a frequent collaborator of Pedro Almodóvar's, De Palma not only makes his female leads look distinctively stunning but also shows a real affinity for modern architecture, dynamically shooting throughout a bank building designed by Frank Gehry. The film also features a lush score by Italian composer Pino Donaggio, working with De Palma for the first time since 1992's "Raising Cain."
If De Palma was frequently accused of aping Alfred Hitchcock earlier in his career, he now has a style of glossy, gliding efficiency that can only be seen as all his own. His signature Steadicam, split-screen and split-focus diopter shots are all present but in direct service of the storytelling.