The first half of Passion is a bit of a slog. Director Brian de Palma exhibits a noticeable disinterest in the setup of this story, which is taken from the 2010 French Film Love Crime, the final film of the late Alain Corneau. The film adapts the scenario from agri-business to the world of advertising, following ruthless advertising executive Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her talented protégé Isabelle (Noomi Rapace). The two seem to have a fine working relationship, but tension starts when Christine takes credit for a campaign that Isabelle thought up. Things escalate from there, with Isabelle sleeping with Christine’s beau and sabotaging her boss’ chance at a promotion.
This scenario of corporate politicking and sabotage feels like busywork for the director, with no real attempt to connect it to a recognizable reality. The interactions between the characters feel terribly unnatural, the dialogue sounding like it never got out of the first draft. It’s all very perfunctory, the movie simply biding its time, waiting to spring the pulpier aspects of the story. And when it does, the movie suddenly springs to life.
The second half of the movie is mostly concerned with the lead up to a murder and the subsequent investigation. The movie transforms itself visually. The bland coldness of the corporate setting is replaced by noir-tinged shadows and oblique angles. Rooms are bathed in the ludicrously long shadows of venetian blinds, and tinted in a sinister shade of blue. But that visual flavor is only precursor to a couple of signature de Palma set pieces. In the first one, the movie employs a splitscreen, curiously juxtaposing a performance of the ballet The Afternoon of the Faun against an eventful night for one of the characters. The second is the film’s climax, a chase scene in a confined space that violates the rules of physics in pursuit of a psychological theme.
In these two sequences, Passion is rather captivating. It shows off a kind of real auteurial flair that often goes missing in contemporary thrillers. But there is little more to the movie than these two sequences. The film isn’t committed enough to the lurid elements of the story to really make the bravura filmmaking sing. It spends too much time seemingly bored with itself, shuffling through the details of corporate politics and career advancement with hardly a drop of blood in its veins.
The precise problem with the movie is that it withholds its passion. It only saves it for certain segments, leaving the rest of it feeling pretty cold. But the entire movie needs that passion. The entire movie is filled with ridiculous details that require heat and style to work on screen. The often-alien dialogue might have been saved with a couple of directorial flourishes. The stilted performances from both McAdams and Rapace certainly work better in the more pulp-tinged second half of the picture. In the cold corporate light, their behavior just seems bizarre.
Passion is a curious little movie. In a couple of spots, it finds its director doing what he does best: putting together incredible setpieces that fully use every aspect of the language of cinema. But most of it seems to find him bored, just waiting to get to the good stuff. Passion could have doled out more of its passion, applying its bonkers sensibilities to the rest of the picture, letting it be the full-on schlockfest that it really could be. But it doesn’t, and the result is something kind of interesting, but ultimately not worth the time.