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VENICE -- You can forgive a film for a lot if it passes the essential test of being alive – it’s a more crucial box to tick than any degree of creativity or even competence, and it’s hard to define beyond instinctively listing the haves and have-nots. All great films are alive, as are many rather bad ones: films that make their missteps with purpose and conviction and even a little wit, keenly aiming for an artistic target that may or may not be visible. Brian De Palma has made some bad films in his time, but he’s never made a dead one; his trademark art-trash sensibility has a rudely healthy pulse, even when the balance is as out of whack as it is on an exquisite failure like “Mission to Mars.”
So when it becomes apparent mere minutes into “Passion” – his long-awaited return to the kinky Venetian-blind thriller territory of “Body Double” and “Femme Fatale” – that the film is not just calendar years away from his best work, there’s still much to hope for. A remake of the late Alain Corneau’s nastily compelling erotic thriller “Love Crime,” itself no jewel of the form, the project seemingly plays to De Palma’s strengths as a hall-of-mirrors cinema fetishist, while allowing him ample room for improvement and simple tarting-up; more Hollywood remakes should hand incompletely realized scripts to directors best qualified to handle them in the first place.
So it’s with no small amount of dismay that I say that “Passion,” quite contrary to its title, is an eerily bloodless (if briefly ketchup-stained) contraption, a film noir so ploddingly un-alive to its own absurdities that its peaks of bad taste are rendered troughs by virtue of sheer humorlessness. Were De Palma’s name not on the thing, you’d assume it was the work of a genre journeyman with a hard-on for “Dressed to Kill” – and even then only in the second half, when the lighting scheme abruptly shifts into trademark high-contrast horizontals, an elaborate ballet-focused split-screen sequence signifies nothing in particular, and Pino Donnagio’s begins paying screeching homage to Bernard Herrmann, who had already playfully Xeroxed his style for DePalma in the 1970s. As arguably the most openly postmodern of the cine-literate generation of American auteurs that came to prominence 40 years ago, DePalma’s work has never belonged wholly to itself, but his frame of reference is oddly small and self-serving here.
Before we even get to that, however, there’s a turgid hour or so of flat corporate melodrama to get through, tedious not so much for its narrative content – this catty back-and-forth of double-crossings and retaliations was unwholesomely entertaining when enacted by Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier in “Love Crime” – as the uncharacteristic airlessness of its staging. Cinematographer (and Almodovar regular) Jose Luis Alcaine shoots in a mode of perfunctory, bare-bulb brightness, with the synthetic echo of the sound design amplifying a certain emptiness to the compositions that may well be budgetary: half the film’s set in a high-flying Berlin marketing firm, so why, in so many scenes, do only four people seem to work there?
Not, to be fair, that you’d expect a swarm of employees to put up with Rachel McAdams’s Christine, the purringly awful manager of said firm, who thinks nothing of swiping her employees’ best ideas and tucking them in her immaculate French roll for exclusively personal gain. She butters up her wide-eyed protégée Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) with a sleek combination of professional flattery and Sapphic advances – this devil wears La Perla, and isn’t afraid to show it – only to claim sole credit for Isabelle’s ingenious ad campaign. We’re told it’s ingenious, at any rate: what we see of it looks more like a concept that even Pete Campbell would scrap at the planning stages. Still, who can argue with “10 million YouTube hits in five hours?” Such is the universe “Passion” lives in.
Understandably piqued, Isabelle responds by sleeping with Christine’s beardily morose boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson), setting in motion a series of bad turns, each deserving another, until blood winds up on someone’s hands. The bad news for us – and the film – is that the blood isn’t Isabelle’s. Since her breakthrough as the screen’s original Lisbeth Salander, Rapace has had mixed fortunes as a crossover movie star: her round-vowelled, slightly earnest otherworldliness served her well in “Prometheus” this summer, but she’s utterly at sea here in a role that requires a hefty shot of guile.
Wan and nervous-looking to begin with, the Swedish actress winds up swamped by De Palma’s abruptly pumped-up styling just at the point where she’s required to shoulder proceedings, as the film veers considerably, and not quite coherently, from the Corneau original's tidier, sang-froid-fuelled close. No less strangely cast is McAdams, years too young to possess this dragon-in-heels role with the coolly unimpressed swagger of Kristin Scott Thomas. Still, if she seems to be playing dress-up in several scenes, at least she’s playing: she deserves a more responsive scene partner when she sweetly bares her teeth and says, “You have talent. I just made the best use of it.”
That’s one of the few zesty lines in an otherwise limp script – written by De Palma himself, but sounding in its worst stretches likes it’s been through several rounds of Google Translate. “It’s got more stars than the galaxy!” says Isabelle’s untowardly interested assistant, after confirming her booking at a London restaurant. Later, De Palma has the nerve to wheel out that most frosted of chestnuts, “Revenge is a dish best served cold” – the place of which was already sealed in the postmodern pop-culture realm by Quentin Tarantino, himself something of a De Palma shadower, nearly 10 years ago. The charitable might say he’s mocking the shallowness of his own character by having her resort to such clichés, but little in this disappointingly sedated self-parody -- arriving six years after the far friskier genre pleasures of "The Black Dahlia" -- suggests he’s in a position to tease.
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