The pattern has been set: every 10 years, Brian De Palma will do a one-for-me palate-cleanser to plainly and fully indulge his filmmaking obsessions, stylistic tics, and indulge his somewhat bonkers, fever-dreamy idea of what watching a thriller should be. In 1992, he shook off Bonfire of the Vanities with the cult-friendly Raising Cain; in 2002, he chased the mainstream space-adventure Mission to Mars with the movie-movieness of Femme Fatale; now, in 2012, he follows up his little-loved Redacted with the glossier Passion—or at least, he does in spirit, as the movie will probably not see actual release in 2012, but is playing the New York Film Festival this weekend.
The NYFF notes unblinkingly refer to Passion as De Palma’s “first fiction feature since Femme Fatale,” such a perverse twist on the word “fiction” that it almost makes a De Palmian kind of sense. Redacted (2007) is a dramatization of real life events but in no way an actual documentary, while The Black Dahlia (2006) is even further from the non-fiction designation, as a narrative film adopted from a novel based on a true story. Yet within De Palma’s filmography, yeah, sure, The Black Dahlia might closer resemble real life than the thesis-in-waiting trilogy of Cain, Fatale, and Passion.
Actually, maybe the NYFF should’ve outright reversed its play on words; I get the feeling that to De Palma, movies like Passion are non-fiction. But to anyone else, the first 30-40 minutes of Passion will appear stilted (at least in terms of concerns secondary to De Palma like dialogue and behavior), albeit fascinatingly. Rachel McAdams, dressed in a series of weirdly unflattering outfits (high-waisted pants, turtleneck blouses), plays Christine, head of a powerful ad agency, or consulting company, or something; the point is, she’s the boss of Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), and they engage in an ongoing friendship-slash-competition, with plenty of flirting-slash-backstabbing. The suspense of the movie has little to do with whether Isabelle will receive credit for her mobile-phone ad idea or which working woman of the world will have revenge; rather, film geeks will reach the edge of their seats wondering when, exactly, De Palma will uncork.
When he does, it’s a feast of fetishized style: the directorial control of the first section gives way to canted angles, noirish blind shadows, POV shots, long takes, and a bravura trick of a split-screen sequence. The movie has plenty of showstoppers in its back half, but one of the most interesting doesn’t contain any of the director’s signature shocks of violence; the camera just follows Rapace out of her office, into an elevator, to her car in a parking garage, and into a fit of deep frustration and rage. All together, the movie isn’t quite as nutty as Cain nor as movie-drunk as Fatale, but it’s of their ilk: diabolical, a little deranged. Like De Palma’s other palate-cleansers, it’s more about its creator than its creations. Plus, there’s nothing like seeing a De Palma picture with an audience of film critics; when it sees proper release, it’s virtually guaranteed that the non-joke line “you have a twin sister?” will elicit knowing laughter.