If it weren’t for 2007’s Redacted, Passion would be a neat, coherent follow-up to both Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia in Brian De Palma’s filmography, in addition to being a rehashing of many of the director’s themes and trademarks. And yet Redacted, with its fragmented approach and centerless viewpoint, still seems like a thorn in Passion’s side. In the newer film, the classic De Palma milieu—doubles, voyeurism, camera movements, split screens, etc.—greets viewers like a cozy living room after a long vacation, but you’ll find that this is milieu coated in digital frenzy and wild proliferation of recorded footage. This might just be an inevitable update to go with the times, or indeed the result of a particularly heavy product-placement strategy, but it’s possible that this film's approach can be traced back to Redacted. Back then, it felt like the director was taking an unfamiliar, daring turn; now, in the age of the second screen, it could be said that there are few filmmakers out there more suited to its celebration than De Palma.
Shooting almost entirely indoors, De Palma plays hide-and-seek in his Berlin location, while simultaneously making the most of the city's predictably modern, clear-cut interior design in the advertising agency where Christine (Rachel McAdams) and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) are working on Panasonic’s new smartphone campaign. Tension is palpable between the two—professional as well as personal. There’s attraction, a sharp rivalry, and a power struggle, in addition to a cheating boyfriend (an impressive Paul Anderson, completing the reunion of Sherlock Holmes cast members and adding an elegant hint of danger) caught in the middle. Things quickly take a turn for the worse, leading to psychological warfare at first and outright violence later on.
Before the situation escalates, giving De Palma a chance to unleash his wild imagination with a rollout of his most famous visual tricks, the story (a remake of Alain Corneau’s Love Crime from 2010) unfortunately gets stuck in a series of unconvincing and ultimately puzzling sequences. At times it feels like a parody, like a self-conscious, deliberate repetition of old solutions to new visual problems. Constantly pulling away from the characters, the camera traces sinuous trajectories in the air with no noticeable result. Everything feels stiff, as if each shot were only a stripped-down placeholder. The more visceral experimentalism of Redacted, however problematic, felt comparably much more lively (bagging a Best Director award in the process, right here in Venice). That was a new direction; this film is a retracing of the director’s footsteps, albeit without quality in mind.
The latter part of the movie proves that De Palma is still perfectly able to engage his own legacy and put a spin on it, but it’s also proof that the preceding part is simply unworthy of his talent. An anticlimactic conclusion for the Venice Competition, but hopefully yet another step in the evolution of a great director.
Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.