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To the Passion

Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin


Spanish version in Transit


Basically, we must verify that the cinema enjoys a certain aptitude for the concept, once it has the power to render the certainty of the visible visibly uncertain.

                     - Alain Badiou



Be sure you put that in your piece so you can instruct the other critics.
                    - Brian De Palma


First Time Every Time

At least since The Fury (1978), commentators on the films of Brian De Palma have been keen to catch him in the act of mannerist frenzy: self-quotation, self-summation, self-anthologisation – upon material that is itself, of course, already borrowed as a handy template from previous masters and masterpieces. De Palma’s cinema today, in this view, can only be the end result of an ever-more baroque plunge into spirals of citation and reworking: an intriguing, post-postmodern business to some, mere self-exhaustion and diminishing returns for others.


As with all the best De Palma films, watching Passion (2012) should remind us of a contrary truth: when it comes to the exhilarating thrill, the wallop of cinema that his work gives us, it’s always the first time. Of course, there are broadly similar games with devious plots, POVs, split-screens, identity switches/disguises – play with the five senses and with every kind of media screen – in at least a dozen of his previous movies. But we were not thinking of Dressed to Kill (1980) or Raising Cain (1992) or Femme Fatale (2002) while we were absorbed in Passion: that type of unravelling always comes later. Nor were we trying to construct a hyper-intellectual contraption (in the manner of a recent woeful book) to ‘account for’ or explain away the intense, complicated, visceral pleasure we derive from his films.


When one of the main characters dies at the precise mid-way point, when the dreams and the dreams-within-dreams begin to unfold, when the camera tilts calamitously in a room or tracks in slowly to a face, when the plot lines pile up and converge on a single, catastrophic point … when these events, great and small, happen, we are not immediately flipping through the De Palma back catalogue; we are in the moment, the screen moment. Something that shakes us, that resonates, is happening there – we definitely know this by the final frames – and it is our task as critics to figure out what forces are involved, what has been deftly drawn into the fray. This task has nothing to do with taking the old Pauline Kael line that De Palma’s cinema is all about (and only about) energy, ‘pop vitalism’ and all-American vulgarity: such so-called ‘defence of trash’ too often clogs up the response-pores of even De Palma’s most public devotees.



Passion is not (as we are hearing a lot at the moment) a wilfully ‘ridiculous’ film (it is especially depressing to hear this said as praise!) or a self-consciously trashy one: these kinds of responses always tell more about the person uttering it than about the filmmaker in question. De Palma has gotten to a position in his career that is a little reminiscent of Samuel Fuller in his early-to-mid 1960s prime: his films mix vigorous, generic structures with sincere samplings of culture high and low (from viral YouTube videos to Jerome Robbins’ ballet choreography of Afternoon of a Faun); they meld expressionistic and melodramatic aesthetic patterns with a cold, hard edge of social criticism. And none of his films are so stringently, steely cold as Passion.


The Women

Passion offers a stark vision of professional women tearing each other apart in a neo-liberal, neo-corporate world. De Palma reaches back to George Cukor’s The Women (1939) as a handy point of reference, but a closer comparison could be made with the vicious byplay between Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles in The Business of Strangers (writer-director Patrick Stettner, 2001). Like that underrated film (which was largely set in an under-construction airport), De Palma makes full use of his cosmopolitan, Berlin setting: an empire of glass and of easily-penetrated offices, a ‘porous’ space where nothing is private or secure – neither the papers meant to go in the trash bin, nor one’s personal email. He turns the co-production co-ordinates (French/German money, but shot mainly in English) to his advantage: this is a fluid world of multinational capital, in which the office spaces are interchangeable, networked by digital connections and screens.



Also like Stettner’s film, Passion is built on a central power dynamic: boss Christine (Rachel McAdams) and star employee Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) – but what’s different here is that there is no longer any nostalgia for, or even a reminder of, a previous era where women sometimes struggled with choices between marriage/family versus career, sentimental life versus cutthroat workplace obligations. Christine provides a new model for the professional woman, less conflicted or neurotic than even Tilda Swinton as Eve in the law-firm setting of Female Perversions (Susan Streitfeld, 1996): she manages her own down-time perversions (not always easy for her to satisfy with one phone call, it’s true) in relation to her job commitments rather well – and also finds a way to intermingle a very modern kind of love/friendship with office team-work.



The important thing is not that Passion (as has long been the case in De Palma’s cinema) keeps pace with the techno-times of the industrially advanced everyday: so many Mac laptops, mobile phone calls, SMS text messages, video-conferencing, YouTube clips … and not even that this technology is so skilfully interwoven into the moves of the story (Isabelle’s ‘viral video’ success, Dani’s video evidence uploaded to her phone and ready to send to the chief cop with a flick of her finger). Rather, it is that all the processes associated with this audiovisual technology are continuous and interlinked.



Unlike in the movie system of old, with its divisions of labour and outsourcing, Passion presents a model of production and distribution strongly influenced by our contemporary audiovisual landscape: Isabelle and Dani shoot on their mobile, edit on their laptop, project it at the staff meeting and stick it on YouTube; while Christine (this sequence of actions conveyed more elliptically) spies on everyone at work through surveillance cameras (the ‘eye in the sky’ from Snake Eyes), edits the most incriminating parts together, and screens the end result at the office party … Chillingly, this unbroken strip of digital processes aids in completely sealing up the modern work space: everything (from sexual trysts to nervous breakdowns) is seen, recorded, montaged, processed and recycled in-house; there is no escape from its loop.



In the fifth minute of Passion, only three shots are sufficient to announce the logic that will preside over the entire film. In the first, Isabelle, in bed, falls asleep while typing on her Mac laptop; the second is a brief sex episode between blindfolded Christine and her masked lover, Dirk (Paul Anderson); in the third, Isabelle wakes with a bright idea for the advertising campaign they are working on, and calls Dani (Karoline Herfurth), her assistant, to get it happening. This sequence of shots allows De Palma to signal, in a wonderfully concise and effective way, the position that each character occupies in the chain of power, as well as the parallelisms, transferences and displacements that will occur all along this hierarchy (the sexual domination game that Christine exercises over Dirk, for instance, finds its double in the euphoric affirmation with which Dani answers Isabelle’s nocturnal command: ‘You’re the boss’.) The alternation between these three shots, however, reveals something deeper: in the connection between Isabelle and Christine that occurs in the interval between the dreaming and then waking of the former, the film already indicates, in a subterranean way, the specific structure and poetic system it is adopting: namely, a constant displacement between reality and dream that works not by opposition, but by confluence.



Dreams (usually in the form of nightmares) figure prominently in many De Palma films: either as a dramatic device that allows the expression of characters’ fears, desires or guilt feelings; or as a mechanism that provides the possibility of complicating the narration and unfolding an allegorical and meta-fictional mise en scène (such is the case in Dressed to Kill, for example). The second half of Passion is built – so it seems – upon a structure of dreams-within-dreams; but these dreams are treated like no others in the director’s previous filmography. Up until now, waking up was always a relief in De Palma’s movies, because it put a brake on fantasy’s excesses – either putting everything back in its proper place, or prefiguring a reality that could be modified, thus finally giving the protagonists a second chance (as in Femme Fatale). In Passion, however, each new waking plunges Isabelle into a level of reality that is more sordid and hostile than the one before – a vast improvement on, and far less reassuring than, the film that provided some measure of inspiration for De Palma on this occasion, namely Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010).



By the 50th minute of the film, De Palma has arranged everything (pills on the bedside table, Isabelle’s closing eyes …) to plunge us into what would seem to be a dream sequence. The long section that follows adopts a look and tone (blue filters giving the image an unreal aspect, lines of light and shadow streaking the walls as in an Expressionist film, acute angles, tilted shots, dark and liquid reflections) totally different from the film’s first half. However, when Isabelle wakes, drenched in sweat, we discover, after the initial moment of relief, that what De Palma has presented as a dream is, in fact, real (and this whole operation, furthermore, will happen again with Isabelle in her cell). What can be the rationale for these aesthetic choices by De Palma in constructing his scenes? Is it just a trick, a caprice, a red herring?



In fact, the director’s decision is doubly justified by the film’s logic. First, because nothing permits us to disallow the possibility that these things are also happening in Isabelle’s dreams; and second, because Passion fuses with Isabelle to such an extent that that the film ends up somatising the imaginary condition of this protagonist, and transforming itself into a projection of the fiction that she has internalised in order to elaborate her alibi.

While, on the one hand, De Palma manages to embroil the spectator in this uncertainty and confusion concerning levels of reality in the film (watching Passion is like emerging from a particularly intense dream and being unable, momentarily, to distinguish what is real from what has been imagined), on the other hand, he indeed warns us that, under the dreamlike surface of these scenes, there lies certain events that have definitely happened.

This clever work by De Palma on the spectator’s regime of belief leads to the deliberately jam-packed final climax, for which the entire film has been preparing us. Here, however, the dream does not involve those atmospheric co-ordinates with which cinema has usually approached the depiction of such sequences. De Palma lets this dream unwind according to its own, intrinsic properties: possessing a series of elements (Christine’s twin, the platform shoes, flowers, the telephone hidden behind a drawer, a scarf stained with blood …) that interact via condensation, displacement and metaphor. It hardly matters that this is the only real dream in the film; the seed has been planted, our intuition has deceived us twice before, and so now we are ready to fervently believe in the terrible reality of anything we are shown.


Seeing the Unreliable

The most remarkable section of Passion hinges on the decline and seeming fall of Isabelle after her public humiliation at the hands of surveillance-master Christine. In a superbly directed moment, Isabelle wakes up from the nightmare of having been arrested and thrown in jail (after confessing under police duress) – but then realises that her dream is actual, and she really is in jail. As we will learn later, Isabelle is faking, and covering up, a great deal here. All the stuff including her pill-popping problem – complete with heavy subjective POV effects of wandering, fuzzy attention – is an elaborate ruse. De Palma rightly pegs her (in the interview quoted at the start of this piece) as what narrative theory calls the unreliable narrator.



You're seeing the unreliable narrator’, says De Palma. But what does it mean to see an unreliable narration unfolding? What actually happens in Passion is more complex than in literary fiction: it is not only the character performing, but also the film itself! And far beyond any deception that is strictly necessary in plotting terms, i.e., inside the diegesis where Isabelle needs to fool everyone – because De Palma, in making us see this unreliable narrator/narration, in projecting or somatising it the way he does, aims to completely fool or mislead the spectator (at least for a while). If this is what some spoilsports call cheating, it is a sweet cheat, indeed. De Palma takes the ruse a long way: when Isabelle sits in jail, apparently even her internal memory (of various lawful things said to her) is still in the process of performing. De Palma is a reliably unreliable narrator.


Triangles and Turning Points

What we have just described is an exaggerated model of what is, in a sense, always going on in De Palma’s films. There is a gradual process of focusing upon a character, and his or her subjectivity (what s/he sees, hears, notices, deduces, acts upon), while also shuffling another character into the background – another character who, in turn, will eventually emerge to eclipse the former player and take over the driving seat of the narrative. What is terrific in De Palma is that this whole process can happen as many times as required by an extravagant plot (and draw upon as many diverse characters as is needed for the trick), and that it can happen at any moment – even near the very end of a film, as it does with Dani in Passion.


The knotty, triangular construction of Passion – the way it rotates through Christine, Isabelle and Dani – is a marvel to behold and study. It is also one of the many, crucial inventions that De Palma added to his source material, Alain Corneau’s now unwatchably bland and flat Crime d’amour (2010). Substituting redheaded Dani for the tepid male character in Corneau, De Palma not only gains a compact women’s-film, but also injects into his version a completely different dynamic. Passion transforms the traditional two-hander conflict into a disturbing, serial chain: here the competitiveness never ends, it only ever perpetuates itself, expanding and renewing with each new turn of the screw.


If you add together the overlapping moves of this triangular structure with the dream/reality game already outlined, you get … absolutely nothing resembling a conventional three-act or four-part or x-y (insert your own preferred model) plot, of the kind preached in any of the scriptwriting manuals. The beats and the turning points just do not fall where convention decrees; the film creates its own necessities, its own shifts, its own complex system.



For instance, the strong shift, at the 40-minute point, to Isabelle as the victim-centre of the piece ties and prefigures many elements and levels in the film. It hinges on everyday communications technology: a cruel Skype trick played by Christine on Isabelle. It reinforces the techno-bubble: Christine’s broadcast includes the sex-file made by Dirk in London. (With a deft pan of the Skype-eye, Christine also demonstrates her ‘possession’ or domination of Dirk in the flesh, as well.) Above all, it performs a two-step, an unusual deformation of shot/reverse shot, that begins the more Expressionist stylisations to come: from the embedded screen vision of Christine on Skype looking directly into the camera-eye, we cut to a sudden frontal view of Isabelle that is not exactly what Christine sees (it’s not her Skype screen), but rather what we are cued to see and feel: Isabelle’s sudden recognition of having been caught out, her entrapment in the situation. The entire somatic nightmare around Isabelle, and the way it is presented, begins here …



Domination, humiliation and frustration are the building blocks of an unstoppable chain of transferences – a constantly rotating sequence that works by switching the three women’s roles and strengthening the parallelisms between them. Thus, Passion’s opening scene – with Isabelle and Christine working on the Mac – finds its double in the final section, except that now Isabelle occupies (literally as well as metaphorically) the place of Christine, and Dani takes Isabelle’s former spot. At another moment, De Palma presents the intersubjective diagram of his film using a fluid, parallel montage rising to a crescendo: observe how Christine and Isabelle, each in their own space, deal with the frustration provoked by rejection from their respective lovers.



Contrary to Crime d'amour, whose reassuring denouement softens the import of  Isabelle’s actions by suggesting that they are in response to an unrequited love, Passion seeks no such sentimental alibi to redeem its characters. In this sense, the film’s title seems like the ultimate, black joke on its director’s part – yet another piece in an elaborate mechanism engineered to disorient the spectator and sabotage his or her expectations. The passion to which this title alludes has nothing to do with amorous rapture (not even its purely physical, carnal side); rather, it involves the intensity aroused by everything we know as the base passions.


From the cruelty with which Christine and Isabelle snigger at a model’s unfortunate fall on the catwalk, to the incessant, multiple power games enacted by the feminine trio: everything in the movie turns upon this type of excited seizure which is experienced by all the characters in relation to a smorgasbord of diabolical perversions and morally reprehensible emotions. In the savage, competitive world of Passion, even the kisses – symbol par excellence of love – are turned into a weapon that all the women wield, at some stage of the film, to coerce and manipulate each other.


Split Screen

Split screen is not only one of the cornerstones and hallmarks of De Palma’s cinema; it is also, frequently, what prompts some of his most spectacular, sophisticated and climactic set pieces. In Passion, the split screen dispositif attains a remarkable level of complexity. Debussy’s composition Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (based on a Mallarmé poem that, intriguingly, displays a similar dreamlike theme and structure to De Palma’s film) plays on the soundtrack before the splitting of the screen takes effect: an establishing shot shows us Isabelle entering the theatre, and then we see Christine farewelling her dinner party guests. While Isabelle tries to get rid of the troublesome Dirk, a close-up of Isabelle’s eyes appears on the left of the screen and starts to slide towards the centre, until we reach a 50/50 division.


In brief, what the two screens show is this: on the left, the ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins, interspersed with several shots of Isabelle’s face; on the right, Christine discovering a note containing precise instructions, and then preparing for yet another sexual encounter. When Debussy’s music is interrupted by Pino Donaggio’s theme (with its audible allusion to his previous score for Dressed to Kill), the brutal murder of Christine puts an abrupt end to the split screen deployment.


When De Palma first shows Isabelle at the start of this sequence, he emphasises her status as spectator: the camera begins in a position behind her head, then racks focus from her to the stage, and begins to slowly move towards it. When, later, the director alternates shots of the spectacle with Isabelle’s eyes, we naturally assume that this shot/reverse shot volley confirms that the character is watching the ballet. Near the film’s end, Dani’s digital video recording lets us re-see the reverse shot of Isabelle, and that is when we discover exactly how we have been deceived. It is not the first time that De Palma has used this type of operation – returning to an image and working through it – in order to reveal the genuinely elusive nature of supposedly crystal-clear, classical cinematographic syntax. The function of the split screen is thus revealed as another of the strategies of unreliable narration used in Passion, a fruit of its interpretative mode: the way in which it assimilates, sustains and confirms Isabelle’s alibi.


The brilliance of this scene, however, goes beyond its narrative function – resting upon the beauty of its echoes and resonances, its movements of forms and colours, its dance of rhythms and temporal structures. While the ballet unfolds in continuous ‘real time’ on the left screen (although there is a disguised narrative ellipse here, as well, excluding most of the male dancer’s initial solo), on the right screen the action jumps forward elliptically. The dancers’ movements on one side, and the easy movements of De Palma’s camera on the other side, create a floating, shared choreography across the image-strips. The colour design of the sequence keeps uncovering intermittent correspondences between the two screen zones: the white on the stage fits with the walls of Christine’s house; the blue doors and windows on the left match the blue elements of décor and costume on the right. The amorous ecstasy of the ballerina coincides with the sensual exaltation of Christine under the shower; and the wide-open eyes of both of them trigger the sequence’s overwhelming climax. At some moments, one of the two screens moves to take full possession of the cinema rectangle (in what could be taken as a visual pun mimicking the volatile power dynamic between the characters); at other moments, the exact opposite happens: the two screen areas fit together in such a way that the line dividing them seems natural, and they are part of the same, continuous space.



In Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), a character refers to the triangle (composed of three people) as the ‘fundamentally vulgar figure’ – and many fine filmmakers have explored the infinite perversities of that character arrangement. Hitchcock went further, insinuating the triangular relationship even into the most intimate moment of a couple kissing in Notorious (1946): ‘I also felt that the public, represented by the camera, was the third party to this embrace. The public was being given the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together. It was a kind of temporary ménage à trois’. In Passion, De Palma – tracking the profound vulgarity of our new age – outdoes all previous cinematic triangles.


In the split screen sequence, De Palma seizes directly upon the central, scenographic idea of Robbins’ choreography for Afternoon of a Faun: the dancers look directly out – at the theatre audience, at Isabelle, at us, and at the camera – because they are miming the act of gazing at themselves in a wall-length rehearsal mirror. What a concept, in De Palma’s hands: the transparent fourth wall of the cubic stage becomes a cinematic two-way mirror! And in none of the many documented renditions of this dance on YouTube (including the 1950s TV clip that De Palma himself consulted) does anyone ever dare put the camera right there, where it should most logically be, ‘in’ or as the mirror. Merrily risking (and not the for the first time) the discomfort of the spectator, De Palma in Passion insists that every clinch is just another triangle – a fundamentally vulgar triangle, in which we are always implicated.


from Issue 4: Walks


© Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin September 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.