“Passion” is an eye-candy parade of kinky couplings, slashed bodies, voyeuristic thrills, Hitchcockian allusions and Sapphic overtones — which is to say, it’s a new picture by Brian De Palma. Essentially taking Alain Corneau’s corporate thriller “Love Crime” and sticking it in blood-red platform heels, this tarted-up English-language remake affords some modestly campy pleasures, but lacks the delirious trash-horror verve of De Palma’s best work. Even the juicy lead pairing of Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, which promises solid international play, can’t quite make this lurid but lukewarm divertissement seem worthy of its title.
The last film Corneau made before he died in 2010, “Love Crime” spun a diverting if preposterous tale of rivalry between a manipulative boss and her equally conniving underling — a ready-made vehicle for De Palma’s pet themes of desire, duplicity, surveillance and murderous obsession. Indeed, until its over-the-top final scenes, “Passion” cleaves almost too faithfully to its source.
Apart from relocating the action to a Berlin advertising agency, De Palma’s chief alteration is to lower the age of top exec Christine (played in the original by Kristin Scott Thomas and embodied here by McAdams), putting her and her ambitious colleague Isabelle (Rapace) on more equal footing while also extending the promise of hot girl-on-girl action. To further serve that marketable angle, Isabelle’s male assistant is now a woman, Dani (Karoline Herfurth), and rest assured that every possible two-way lip-locking combination among these three attractive femmes will be exhausted by film’s end.
Beneath her ingratiating manner and killer smile, McAdams’ Christine is one devious operator; that much is clear from a giggle-inducing sex scene in which a lover pleasures her while wearing a freakish white mask-and-wig combo apparently on loan from “The Phantom of the Kabuki.” Expertly manipulating Isabelle while showing her the ropes, Christine encourages the notion that they’re not just colleagues but close friends, and not just close friends but maybe something more. But when Isabelle scores a major coup at work, New York native Christine, eyeing a possible transfer back to the firm’s Gotham offices, immediately seizes credit for her protegee’s performance.
This kicks off a round of retaliatory power plays, shocking humiliations and ultimately fatal consequences, complicated by the involvement of sleazy company boy-toy Dirk (Paul Anderson), whom neither Christine nor Isabelle is above using for sexual or professional gain. “I’m just doing what you would do,” Isabelle tells Christine, minutely observing the woman she would secretly like to become. “Passion” approaches its source with a similar degree of studied mimicry and personal embellishment, treating the twisty contours of Corneau’s plotting as a pretext for a series of signature De Palma frissons.
The result is stuffed with enough outre sex, garish violence and modernist real-estate porn to entertain a general audience, but it nonetheless feels designed to appeal primarily to admirers of the writer-director’s back catalog. From a basic narrative standpoint, there’s no real reason for Christine to blurt out a ludicrous sob story about the identical twin she lost years ago (shades of “Sisters”), or for an extended split-screen sequence that ostentatiously divides the viewer’s attention between a ballet performance and a carefully staged murder that resembles something out of “Dressed to Kill.”
As ever, De Palma remains under the spell of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” from the Bernard Herrmann riffs in Pino Donaggio’s score to a key suspense sequence that prominently features a bouquet of flowers and a winding staircase. Rather more germane is the film’s simmering atmosphere of paranoia, generated by the characters’ frequent use of Skype calls, cell-phone videos and old-fashioned security cameras.
Clearly, “Passion” means to be a hoot, a wet-dream thriller for cinephiles. But by the time it reaches its overwrought final act, the picture has generated neither the tension of its forebears nor the audacity that would allow it to transcend its silliness, a la De Palma’s 2002 tour de force, “Femme Fatale.” Yet even in the absence of stellar material, the leads remain compulsively watchable: McAdams may lack Scott Thomas’ hauteur, but more than makes up for it in cool, svelte malevolence, while Rapace provides an energetic counterweight, lending her more naive but also more unpredictable Isabelle an edge of dark desperation.
Although Cornelia Ott’s production design and Karen Muller-Serreau’s costumes are easy enough on the eyes, the overall look of the Berlin-lensed picture isn’t quite as sumptuous as one might expect; a slightly on-the-cheap feel persists that seems consistent with the indifferent nature of the material. D.p. Jose Luis Alcaine’s palette darkens along with the story, bathing the firm’s interiors in noirish shadows, an effective if self-conscious touch.