This late-period de Palma film is something of an anomaly in that it is a remake of a successful foreign language film released only a couple of years earlier. This would place it within the small sub-genre of such efforts from the period, where a recurring crisis of lack of imagination seemed to result in a casting of the net to foreign shores in search of stories to recast in the Hollywood mould. From the slew of remakes of Japanese and European horror (Ju-on, Ringu, Martyrs, etc.) to curious efforts such as Michael Haneke’s remake of his own Funny Games (2007), the period from the turn of the century until the recent mini-renaissance of Hollywood was peppered with remakes of foreign films in a variety of genres.
De Palma, of course, is no stranger to the lure of commerce. Starting out as a quirky independent voice before graduating to the status of something of a Hollywood auteur – albeit one constantly under attack for a supposed slavish devotion to the cinematic tricks of major figures such as Hitchcock and Antonioni – the director suffered an eventual slide into sometimes bland, occasionally disastrous, major picture assignments. At the time of this film’s production he was stung by the negative reaction to his recent staging of the Black Dahlia murder and the rather more positive – albeit politically controversial – response to his digital war polemic, Redacted (2007).
It’s interesting to consider whether his decision to venture into the euro-remake was influenced in any way by David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – an effort by a similarly auteur-ist filmmaker, which had received positive critical and audience response. Crime d’Amour (2010) may have seemed the perfect property to allow de Palma to ride the coattails of a recent trend while accommodating just enough of his trademark concerns for it to bear the stamp of his authorship.
I have to point out that I haven’t seen Crime d’Amour, so will have to take Passion on its own merits and as nothing other than a Brian de Palma film, which it certainly is. In fact, and this is something which I’m sure is familiar to many observers of his work, the indelible stamp of the de Palma hand is – as in so many of his minor works – its greatest virtue and its greatest fault.
First of all, some of the details of the production have an impact on the overall experience. This is a European co-production, shot in Germany, with a smattering of European actors supporting a (at the time) emerging Hollywood talent in Rachel McAdams. The production has a cold, clinical look which is familiar from the tropes of the then-emerging field of “skandi-noir”, reinforced by the presence of Noomi Rapace. A number of the minor European players appear to have been dubbed, or at least somewhat carelessly looped, given some of the dialogue an airless, unreal feel. In addition, some of the dialogue, especially anything associated with the office machinations of the advertising agency, seems divorced from anything any actual office workers may have experienced. The film strains against the mundanity inherent in daily concerns and strives instead for high-melodrama, something which is underscored by a typically melodious and mischievous score from de Palma’s regular composer Pino Donaggio.
These scenes and others constantly reminded me of the late-period, rather down-at-heel work of de Palma’s fellow-traveller in the world of the violent, misogynist-tinged, thriller genre, Dario Argento. De Palma’s discomfort and impatience with the details of office politics are similar to Argento’s handling of police procedural scenes in films such as The Card Player (2004) and Giallo (2009). The mangling of accepted norms and patterns of storytelling through the quirks and obsessions of these auteur figures are similarly mirrored in stark, medium-budget limitations of the kind of fluid, mobile and sometimes flat-out overwrought camera techniques which are signatures of both.
Peculiar to de Palma and here in spades is the director’s mischievousness (as opposed to Argento, a filmmaker who – when forced to watch his own films – admits to doing so through his fingers). At points where the film quotes his own work (which often quotes others’ work of course) or gleefully departs from reality, such as the extended dream sequence which ends the film, I could almost feel de Palma in the room with me – watching for a reaction, waiting for the moments of recognition that I was being pranked. Similarities to Dressed to Kill (1980) abound – psychiatry, showers, lifts, costumes, etc. – to the extent that the shell of the plot becomes more of a anecdote which allows de Palma to free-associate through his usual concerns, or at least those of previous high-points in his career.
As a fan of the early work, you would find it hard not to be amused. As a general viewer, you would probably just be frustrated, as would appear to have been the case, given the lacklustre box-office returns. It would have been interesting to hear the response from de Palma’s investors and producers. It would be another long wait for a new film – we wait to see what this year’s Lights Out brings – more of the same smart-alec self-referentiality, or a return to form?