The word ‘passion’ carries a number of colloquial meanings. In one way it can refer to the fiery charge between two lovers. In another it can be used to reference the drive to do or achieve some goal or objective. In religious terminology it references the suffering of Christ. As a noun it can denote an object of fervent interest. It is a word with a seemingly straight forward definition that can, given the right situation, unfold into a much more complex and nebulous idea.
Fitting, then, that this is the title given to you, Passion, considering the way your straight-forward plot of jealousy and vengeance and ambition slowly unwinds and expands to encompass far more than your premise would lead one to expect.
You begin by exploring the passions of our main characters, the power team of Christine (Rachel McAdams) and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), both of whom work for a prestigious international ad firm. Isabelle is the creative force behind the team, struggling to come up with the perfect pitch for a new cell phone that the firm is marketing. Christine is her superior but also her friend, and her obsessions run more toward the carnal. Their vodka- and wine-soaked brainstorming session is interrupted when Christine’s lover arrives and immediately begins his lightly-veiled amorous overtures.
That night Isabelle strikes on the perfect ad, does a quick shoot with her dedicated assistant (Karoline Herfurth), and is immediately showered with acclaim for her work. Or she would be, if Christine didn’t snatch the credit for the concept during a teleconference, setting off a chain of slights and retributions which propel both women down a slippery slope toward disaster.
From here the story could become predictable, were the characters and situations not so wholly and unabashedly insane. After a fairly rote beginning, sequences of actions occur that begin to mimic the surreal logic of a particularly incredible stress dream, the kind you might have the day before an important meeting or test. Incriminating tapes are made and aired with no reaction from the outside world, cars are crashed and lovers swapped and no one seems to make any fuss regarding the mounting physical and psychological damage.
It is not often that a movie that begins as just a handsome and immaturely titillating exercise in high dramatics turns into a head-spinning tale the likes of which cannot easily be explained or delineated, but my God do you pull it off. It is like being in a car, going languidly around the neighborhood with a pleasant pop song on the radio, when suddenly the driver snaps, throws the whole heap into reverse, breaks the speed limit, and begins viewing gardens and mailboxes as checkpoints on some psychologically unhinged rally car course.
Brian DePalma, your director, treats this narrative shift as a kind of checkered flag for his own intense stylistic shift. At the beginning he shoots with clean light, level camera angles, and pretty standard mise en scene. Then, once the pedal hits the floor and the ratcheting tension is unleashed, all bets are off. What was a fairly routinely shot film becomes a classic neo-noir exercise, saturated in deep shadows, dripping with incredible texture, and laced with angles and pans and visual tricks that make one realize just how boring most films are shot. For a while nothing makes sense, but my God isn’t that the thrill of the new and the unknown? Don’t we go looking for thrillers and dramas so they can take us by surprise and leave us just as confused and unmoored as the protagonists?
There’s something to be said for a film that is filled with arch performance, blindly executed moments of sheer bravado, and style the likes of which is rarely present nowadays outside of parody. When the music and action of a film fit together as a kind of bold, rebellious “tada!” not out of satirical grandeur but through actual conviction, who can be strong enough to resist it? Why would you want to? When Rachel McAdams plays catty and bewitching with so much unadulterated glee and Noomi Rapace throws her eyes so wide and plays melodrama with such sweeping affection, who are we to tell them to hold back?
Plus, no one with half a cinema-loving bone in their body could ever resist a film that culminates in a scene wherein a clever observer to the action is given a parlor scene, the kind of expository monologue reserved for private eyes and polices detectives. When the plot is being recounted with that serpentine slyness, when the new twists are added in, when motives and machinations are underlined with omniscient flashbacks and everything comes to a marvelous head… If that isn’t the kind of thing you think we need more in our lives, I don’t even want to know you.
So cheers, Passion! You burlesque, you cabaret, you unabashed whirlwind of a film. I look forward to baffling people with you for years to come.
Slack-jawed and dumbstruck,
Brian J. Roan