There are subtle truths associated to some Hollyweird productions that no one – certainly not the media – like to talk about: for example, there are some directors who clout both domestically and internationally is strong enough that an average picture gets an above-average critical endorsement. This assures both the studio, its creditors, and its stars that being part of an “Insert Critically-Favored Director’s Name Here” automatically earns you ‘street cred’ with the media establishment. Where this truth really comes into play is when said director releases a below-average picture – one that probably would end up being little more than a direct-to-DVD product much less granted a theatrical run – and everyone rushes to label it as acceptable, despite the fact that it may be bloated, forgettable, or entirely self-absorbed.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Isabelle James (played by current ‘it girl’ Noomi Rapace) is a talented advertising designer. Unfortunately, she finds herself largely being wasted, used, and abused by her current boss, Christine Stanford (played by former ‘it girl’ Rachel McAdams). Neither woman can deny a curious attraction between them, but when Isabelle decides to put her work as a viral sensation on the web Christine realizes she can no longer take credit for it. The two find themselves at odds, and, unless they can get their respective passions under control, it all might end up in murder!
It’s occasionally difficult to say why a picture fails to work; this is especially the case when, at first glance, the film would seem to have all of the right ingredients. Talented stars. Hot-looking ladies. International setting. Desire. Lust. Betrayal. And sex! You name it, and methinks you can find something all audiences look for in a suspense film. Ultimately, PASSION may suffer from being an Americanized remake – the French long ago proved they were masters of the sensual thriller – so perhaps something ends up being lost in translation. I tend to think my disaffection for it stems from the fact that there wasn’t a single likeable characters in there, but maybe I’m just an old fuddy duddy. Sure, it all looks quite swell, but I guess it’s safe to say that when De Palma is off his game, everybody suffers … including the audience.
Rapace’s character is essentially enlisted to carry the weight of the picture; as such, my guess is that she’s intended to be played up as the sympathetic victim. After all, this is one of staples of the sensual thriller – give the viewers someone they either identify with and/or root for. However, her Isabelle clearly is engaging in a whole host of inappropriate relationships – she’s sleeping with Christine’s lover behind her back, she’s flirting with Christine every chance she gets, and she’s stringing along one of her design assistants in yet a third potentially sexual relationship – so I found it increasingly difficult to ‘like’ her character.
In contrast, it looked to me as if McAdam’s Christine was deliberately being telegraphed to serve as the production’s villain from the get-go. In her early scenes, she obviously manipulating everyone around her for her own personal gain and/or gratification. However, midway through the film, the script allows the audience to see her with her guard down – having disenfranchised her closest friends, she’s now taken to dialing any number in her Little Black Book in order to find an immediate conquest to satisfy her somewhat twisted desires. I can’t help but wonder if giving her that dimension was a mistake – are we know to sympathize with the central villain?
Maybe the intent here was to serve up a narrative twist – present two characters, establish their roles, and then make the audience do an about-face. If so, then why take such an uncalculated gamble? It becomes pretty clear early on that this is a tale of shifting allegiances; why subject the viewers to a visual tennis match of emotion for nearly two hours if you’re not going to deliver upon the premise by offering some moral to the story? Was De Palma just doing what these women were doing and playing with our emotions?
Well, if that’s the case, I’ve got better things to do with my time, Brian. You’re all smoke and no mirrors.
PASSION (2012) is produced by SBS Productions, Integral Film, France 2 Cinema, Canal+, and whole host of other contributors (you can check out the complete list over at IMDB.com). DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One (aka E One). As for the technical specifications, please! This is a Brian De Palma film, so little expense was spared in bringing the best video and audio quality to work, and it shows. As for the special features? Well, there’s a round robin of interviews with De Palma, McAdams, and Rapace, along with the theatrical trailer, but it’s a surprisingly slim assortment for such a big production.
RECOMMENDED. Elegantly filmed but ultimately a bit empty, PASSION really only works on one level – visually. The rest of it? Well, it’s surprisingly tame for something that sure looked like it was going to get all hot and bothered. McAdams and Rapace perform capably though I thought the former was a poor choice for a femme fatale here – perhaps they should’ve swapped roles? Come the end – the final scene dishes a big finish that might befuddle viewers even more – I still didn’t much care for anyone in here; that loss of connection certainly didn’t serve the picture well.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (aka E One) provided me with a DVD copy of PASSION by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.