REVIEW: “Passion” Bewilders Rather than Thrills

The double entendre “lesbians eat their own” can be extended more generally, as a consequence of patriarchy, to all of womankind. Passion, Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Alain Corneau’s 2010 Love Crime, explores this theme in through a handful of female relations in the businessworld. In the film’s primary relation, Rachel McAdams plays Christine Stanford, a ruthless advertising executive who relies on the creative ingenuity of her assistant Isabelle James, played by Noomi Rapace, for her career advancement.

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The use-and-abuse of Isabelle is apparent as early as the first scene, when Christine’s bestowal of a white silk scarf (which figures integrally in the murder mystery later) to her signifies a literal roping in, or lulling of Isabelle into a sense of security. But, the audience is quick to learn, Isabelle is no fool.

Despite protestations of her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), Isabelle plays along, even feigning naiveté as Christine steals her idea for a particular campaign that secures her an even more esteemed position in New York. “You would have done the same thing if you were in my shoes,” Christine protests against Isabelle’s disbelief at the audacity of stealing her idea. “There’s no backstabbing here,” she insists, “it’s just business.” Flirtation, including some lady-petting and intense eye contact, is, de Palma insists, how women manipulate not just men but also other women. Working from stereotype, the object of a woman’s sexual manipulation can be of any gender.

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Isabelle plays along, that is, until the moment she doesn’t, flipping the tables on Christine, which effectively loses the latter her new position in New York. Isabelle even uses Christine’s strategy (the “I-learned-by-watching-you” technique) of backstabbing against her. Sarcasm drips from her lips as she echoes “There’s no backstabbing here; it’s just business” back to Christine, who can only smirk in a kind of frustrated titillation at being one upped by the woman she has used as a professional and personal puppet. De Palma regards Isabelle’s move as emblematic of women’s ability to navigate their oppressed subject position: “Women can play a subservient role very easily — and know how to maneuver through subservience,” he told LA Weekly. “I don’t think you’d see a man do that. That’s putting his ego on the line.”

In a separate interview with Vanity Fair, he described his fascination with “the relationship between [Christine and Isabelle]—I liked the power manipulation.” Unfortunately, this fascination more often than not feels superficial, vapid, and slightly voyeuristic from the position of the male (director’s) gaze. It’s not only, as the New York Times observed in its review, that the cast seems uncomfortable, although there was a palpable artificiality to Rachel McAdams’s lecherous behavior—as if de Palma educated her on how to seduce an other women with a handful of misogynist-tinged, smarmy guy maneuvers.

The manipulation feels superficial because it lacks cause. While de Palma intended to offer the viewer a”expositional material into a kind of dream-like reality,” there are simply too many disconnected and underdeveloped plot points. It’s not clear why Christine and Isabelle are so invested—particularly, sexually invested—in each other.

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The problem, I believe, can be attributed to a male construction of female homoerotic relations: a misogynist worldview enables the belief that a flash of eye contact and innocuous flirtation always means that women “want it.” But female homoeroticism isn’t driven by peen; arousal works differently. And it is this libidinal difference that underlies a majority of the film’s problems, from the characters’ sophomoric, melodramatic reactions to seemingly unimportant actions, to the lack of a substantive plot. In this regard, I agree with Tomas Hachard’s estimation of the film, over at NPR, as being “in love with its own overblown drama.”

Passion is available on VOD and iTunes and is now playing in select theaters in NYC .

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