Murder, deceit and treacherous lesbians — yes, after five years in the professional wilderness, director Brian De Palma is back. His new movie, “Passion” is a remake of “Love Crime,” the last film by the late French director Alain Corneau, and in re-scripting it, De Palma has jacked up the story for maximum kink. (What’s sex, after all, without masks and strap-ons and dangling strings of Ben Wa balls?) The movie is essentially a tour of the director’s familiar obsessions. (The spirit of Alfred Hitchcock hovers over it like a blimp; everywhere you look you see the master’s shadow.) But the plot twists have a nice nasty tang, and the picture is never for a moment dull.
Christine Stanford (blazingly blond Rachel McAdams) is the Berlin-based head of the German outpost of a New York advertising agency. She’s determined to transfer back to the more prestigious home office, so when a mousy underling named Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) comes up with a great new ad campaign for one of the movie’s many brazenly placed products, Christine steals it. “This is business,” she tells the astounded Isabelle. “You have talent. I made the best use of it.”
Christine attempts a glib rapprochement (“Why don’t we kiss and make up?”), but Isabelle isn’t really the doormat Christine assumes her to be. And after Christine entertains an office party gathering with a video of Isabelle in a sweaty sex wrangle with one of the agency’s biggest clients — a crumbling drunk named Dirk (Paul Anderson) — Isabelle plots revenge, recruiting a co-worker named Dani (Karoline Herfurth) to assist. And what does Dani want? Christine is in no doubt: “You think I don’t know what’s going on in that dyke brain of yours?”
The plot is relentlessly twisty, filled with mysterious pills, gleaming knives and a visit to the ballet that suggests a theme of male insufficiency. The air of paranoia is enhanced by lurking camera surveillance, and De Palma wheels out most of his time-tested technical effects: Dutch angles, dolly zooms, split screens and deeply designed overhead shots. Cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, a longtime Pedro Almodovar associate, is just the man to capture the movie’s sumptuous surfaces — the rich silks and velours, the chilly chrome-and-white interiors — and to punctuate them with very Almodovarian daubs of bloody crimson (shoes, dresses, logos). And composer Pino Donaggio, a longtime De Palma collaborator, provides a rich Hitchcockian score (complete with a stab of “Psycho”-like strings).
“Passion” is hardly a breakthrough for a director with more than 40 years of features behind him. But the movie is good, devious fun. And it makes you wonder why De Palma wasted so many years turning out box-office duds like “The Black Dahlia” and “Redacted” when he could have been doing what he does here, what he does best. Even if he’s doing it all over again.