Rachel McAdams Perishes
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Brian De Palma
It is very easy to misunderstand Brian De Palma in old age. In his new film Passion, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is an advertising executive whose boss Christine (Rachel McAdams) is a pathological liar and manipulator. Christine makes Isabelle's life hell, taking credit for her ideas, telling her she loves her, writing fake emails from her work computer, secretly filming her and a fellow named Dirk Harriman having doggystyle sex.
Another time, Christine finds security camera footage of Isabelle crashing her car into a Coke machine in the company parking lot. She shows it to everyone. She puts on latex gloves and writes e-mails from Isabelle's computer with which to blackmail her. "It's just business," she tells her subordinate.
Later, Christine accuses Isabelle's assistant of sexual harassment. She may not be creative in her ad campaigns — that's Isabelle's role in the company — but she is magnificently crazy, she adores maskplay during cunnilingus and her selection in robes is known as tasteful. She lies and steals according to her whims, and the only people who know this are Isabelle and her administrative assistant.
Coming home from a party one night McAdams/Christine finds this playful note at her door.
Of course she complies.
After her shower, a figure wearing one of Christine's masks slashes her throat. At this point Passion threatens to fall off a cliff, because McAdams' seriously unhinged portrait of this murder victim was all the fun. With her flaming eyes and resolute, small body, Christine Stamford sharply diverges from the kind of leggy beauty De Palma usually prefers. The resulting portrait is frantic, as if she were a buzzing bee, flitting all over the screen until her macabre antics are squashed with the slash of a knife. It's difficult to get her out of our mind, and equally hard for Isabelle to forget her oppressive boss' presence.
McAdams is a perfect fit for De Palma's tongue-in-cheek "drama," because she can vacillate from harsh seriousness to unexpected mirth simply by using her lips and eyes. From certain angles and with the right amount of eyeshadow, Rachel's face can also appear quite mannish, which for De Palma only amounts to another coup. It's obvious how much he loves what her tiny, yet omniscient presence brings to the familiar office environs she inhabits. Then, she's dead.
Instead of becoming a dull psychodrama along the lines of Side Effects, De Palma's own passion is this kind of mystery. Before Christine's murder, Rapace's Isabelle is a regular person, a sort of play-doh for more interesting people to interject themselves in; a kind of walking mirror. After her tormentor's throat is slashed, she is arrested for the murder and put in De Palma's idea of a women's prison. Oppressed again, this time by the walls of a prison, she comes alive to free herself.
Not conventionally beautiful in any way, Rapace is a much better actress when she is given something to do. She blinks too much, and her facial expressions do a better job of telling this particular story than her often drearily bad line readings in English. Her drabness is of course intentional, since De Palma needs a damn good reason to make any woman ugly onscreen. If it were not for McAdams and Isabelle's assistant Dani (the supernaturally beautiful redhead Karoline Herfurth) to play off her morose style and manner, we would barely be interested at all.
De Palma's usual tricks are at play: his love of split screen, paralleling Christine's murder with a ballet Isabelle attended, is just as on the nose as ever. As in all his films, we do not see everything at once - and watching the event through another's eyes a second time, we still come no closer to an absolute truth. De Palma's mysteries, wrapped in Pino Donaggio's predictable score, give off the odor of the schlocky thriller most of his viewers are expecting, but they smell a lot better when they get the kind of attention they deserve. As it happens, I don't think Passion even has a distributor, let alone a domestic release date.
De Palma's regard for McAdams is obvious, but he is purposefully not quite as fond of the Swedish-born Rapace. Often he shoots scenes from her first person perspective in order to not have her present at all. Once, fleetingly, McAdams puts lipstick on her disciple, but even that does not freshen her overall appearance. De Palma's purpose in this is to garner empathy for her, as a child does when it places a dress or makeup on a doll.
As the killer is revealed, De Palma can't help but bring McAdams back, if only for fleeting moments as he uncovers the circumstances of her murder. Briefly Rapace too is brought to life without the deleterious impact of the more vibrant woman on her appeal. Then, as another begins to manipulate her, resembling McAdams in all of the important ways, she begins to fade again. (The maskplay is for the victim as well as the perpetrator.) All pretense in De Palma eventually fades, even the cinematic apparatus that allows him to turn something so simple as revenge into something so complicated.
Passion's last moments are a brilliant tour de force of editing and hilarious clues. No one makes anything like this now. It is great fun to watch De Palma wrap his now completely familiar tropes: doubles, mirrors, color play, perspective switches — around modern technology, which he is either misunderstanding completely or comprehending far better than his mystery-writing peers. It must be strange for De Palma to find that while his creative expertise has only grown as he aged, the appreciation for his acumen from audiences and the industry as a whole has dimmed. He must be quite confident in how brilliant he is, to keep making something this precious.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about reading Jack Vance. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing for This Recording here.
"One Light Shining" - Ruth Moody (mp3)
"One and Only" - Ruth Moody (mp3)
The new album from Ruth Moody is entitled These Wilder Things, and it was released on April 9th.