Some Kind of Acid Flashback:
In those great days of my late teens/early twenties, when I was discovering just how marvellous cinema could be, Brian De Palma would be one of the directors that you just never missed. Yet back then–for me at least–he would never have even approached the heights of greats like Scorsese, Peckinpah or Ken Russell. I would also never miss a Woody Allen or a Hal Ashby either. Those guys and more were on fire during that fabulous period. You had to see the latest De Palma and in fairness he was always worth watching; but despite the adulation he seemed to get from film critics like Pauline Kael there just came too many times in his movies when you found yourself going ah, here, hang on a minute…
There was always one moment—and usually half a dozen, truth be told—when your willingness to suspend disbelief just flew out the window. I love flights of fancy as much as the next guy but a film or novel surely has to be true to its own reality. And I thought that too often De Palma just didn’t care what the audience thought as long as it got him over a plot point or let him do another showy set-piece. (And there’s no denying him his power to do that!)
One of the worst instances of this came in his 1987 cop-opera The Untouchables when all the city-boy cops (who we presume have never seen a wild animal in their lives) go to Canada, jump on horses as if they were all Clint Eastwoods and start shooting bad guys whilst riding along at full speed.
Now seriously Brian, come on: there’s asking the audience to indulge you and then there’s just purely taking the piss out of them. One of these fast learners is an accountant, for heaven’s sake! And immediate apologies to all those horse-riding, gun-toting accountants out there.
And so to his current opus, Passion. Without bothering to check, I’m pretty sure that this is the first of his movies that I’ve seen since the marvellous, under rated Mission to Mars; and it is a faintly weird experience, like going into some sort of time warp. The ‘me’ of 1980 would undoubtedly have thought that he was watching High Art; this older ‘me’ that I’m unfortunately saddled with, however, is just fascinated that the man doesn’t seem to have moved on at all! Same plot holes, same psychologically implausible scenarios. Which isn’t to say that it’s not enjoyable; in fact it is. I got right into it; but more because it seemed to throw up every trick that I could remember the guy using from days of old.
Courtesy this time of composer Pino Donnagio he uses another Hitchcockian soundtrack; and needless to say his eternal fascination with Hitch continues with any amount of visual references, the most obvious being perhaps Psycho and Vertigo— but really, it’s spot-your-own-preference. And he surely is not above cannibalising his own work. There is the plot, of course. Set in contemporary Germany, we have two enterprising ladies working in the advertising industry. Despite starting off with some rather tame lesbian overtones the two are shown as dramatically opposite. Christine (Rachel McAdams) is ruthlessly ambitious, very full on, aggressively sexual and given to bright red lipstick and dresses. Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is shown, initially at least, as more plain and straightforward, devoid of makeup and less given to being a walking devious bitch. However, we know we’re in familiar De Palma territory when we veer into underhanded shenanigans, secrets, manipulation and mild titillation. Oh, and murder. Of course, murder.
The tricks are just as I remembered them, with smoothly gliding cameras moving gradually in on an object of interest. And I felt an actual skin-tingle of delight when I realised that he was really going to use the split screen device, which I can’t remember looking at since he made Carrie, back in 1976. Yes, over all just a strangely old fashioned feel, something that is augmented by the (unintentional?) way that Rapace plays her character. It may be just me, but I felt at times to be looking at the mannerisms of Mia Farrow. All very odd.
As well as the good old split screen there are many references to his previous films, including a real jaw dropper when I thought that I was having an acid flashback to Dressed to Kill. Nothing funny about that.
Another thing that may be unintentional is that despite the film’s title it is a decidedly impassionate movie. The sets are cool and ordered; and even the murder is unsurprising and clinical. De Palma does—bizarrely—start throwing in frantic lopsided camera angles when Isabelle hits the pills, but it’s more distracting and annoying than disturbing.
Passion is actually a remake of a 2010 French movie by Alan Corneau called Love Crime; but De Palma leaves us in no doubt that he considers this one all his: in the opening credits we see that it is ‘A Brian De Palma Film’ and ‘Written and Directed by Brian De Palma’. Fair enough; but the closing credits also remind us of the same thing. So even though I’m sure his fans would consider this a minor work from him, he wouldn’t seem to agree.
Credit where it’s due, however: I’ve just discovered that this is his 29th feature movie. And in fairness, despite a few clunkers he’s always been entertaining. He is said to be in talks with Al Pacino about his next outing; and considering that their previous two collaborations were Scarface and Carlito’s Way I’d say that it will be safe enough to pencil that one in.
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