The 50th edition of the New York Film Festival, opening Friday with “The Life of Pi,” may seem a bit overstuffed and somewhat confusing, but one thing is clear. As ever, the must-sees are the Main Slate movies screening sans distributor — among them Brian De Palma’s sleek, slick, humorously kinky “Passion,” the director’s first since his 2007 “Redacted.”
A German-produced, English-language remake of the late Alain Corneau’s last feature “Crime d’amour” – a bit of boardroom intrigue released here last September as “Love Crime” – “Passion” has a prime spot on the festival’s first Saturday night (and is showing twice more after that). As in the Corneau film, it’s predicated on a battle royale between two cool chicks — in this case, advertising hotshot Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her protégée Isabelle (Noomi Rapace). McAdams makes a most excellent bad girl — in part because, as his wont, De Palma elicits some truly “bad” acting.
The promise of AC-DC workplace romantic triangle is only one of “Passion”’s deceptive attractions. Basically, De Palma’s movie is a playful, shamelessly manipulative movie about shameless manipulation — not least of cinematic forms. Like “Redacted,” “Passion” is concerned with cyber recording and digital duplicity and, also like “Redacted,” new types of cinema — including sex tapes, Skype conversations, and an “ass-cam” you stick in your back pocket to monitor who’s checking you out. It’s also showboat filmmaking, full of expressionist angles, baroque lighting, nested narratives, and inconsequential film school references (not just to “Vertigo” but De Palma’s own “Dressed to Kill”).
De Palma may be an inveterate trickster, but his compulsion to extra-textualize Corneau’s original is both a way of taking ownership of the material and a form of free-association less rigorous than, but not unlike, Raymond Roussel’s method for composing his surreal novels. Thus, “Passion”’s spit screen set piece involves both a slyly seductive performance of the ballet “Afternoon of a Faun” and an obscurely unfolding criminal plan, mainly because both (as will only later become clear) hinge upon stolen scarfs.
It was while in Toronto, browsing the well-stocked bookstore at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre, that I discovered Chris Dumas’s high-powered, witty, and provocatively (as well as suitably) disreputable “Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible.” Writing like a PhD student who wise-guyed himself out of film school, Dumas clearly identifies with his subject. By his logic, it was precisely because De Palma — a cineaste of the ’60s and thus contemporary to the whole Cinema Studies enterprise — took it upon himself to rewrite, or travesty, the two Cinema Studies deities Hitchcock and Godard, that his oeuvre has found so little academic support. (In that sense, “Un-American Psycho” is something like the return of the Cinema Studies “repressed.”)
Dumas’s De Palma is a sort of intuitive film theorist who, like Peckinpah and Coppola before him, has reached a place where he can only make movies that are allegories for making movies. Blatantly global, predicated on theft and betrayal (as well as plots and image-making), “Passion” is a case in point.
In the best of all possible worlds, De Palma would only direct remakes and all remakes would be directed by him. Still, it is strange that this one has yet to find a U.S. distributor. Can an openly commercial mocksploitation film possibly be too cerebral? As Oscar Wilde observed, “There is always something ridiculous about the passions of people whom one has ceased to love.”