A pivotal moment in Passion, Brian De Palma's resplendent erotic thriller, centers on a splash of red.
An obvious color, maybe, but one that matters because the scene leading up to it — a tour de force of suspenseful montage that cuts between one character watching a ballet and another preparing for bed — is defined visually by the dark-blue canvases of the dance piece's set, and by the way they blend into the increasingly conspicuous blue filters used to film the rest of the scene.
So while many elements contribute to the tension leading up to the scene's conclusion, ultimately that sudden red is as shocking and brilliant as the actual event it represents in the plot. And the finesse of such an exacting use of color is just one element pointing to the presence of a master director behind the camera.
De Palma is such a dazzling stylist that for most of Passion, you'll find it perfectly acceptable to let the visuals wash over you, paying only passing attention to the plot, which follows the conniving, backstabbing relationship between ad-agency colleagues Christine (Rachel McAdams) and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace).
A betrayal early on in the film — Christine takes credit for Isabelle's successful commercial idea — sets off a series of increasingly dramatic paybacks, which unravel in the style of Basic Instinct. (Or, more recently, Side Effects.)
If that amounts to a dearth of innovation, De Palma has no intentions of apologizing for it. Passion is replete with homage, and in love with its own overblown drama. Its score by turns harks back to the rich orchestrations of Hitchcock films and the smooth saxes of '80s thrillers; its performances are utterly unnatural, but of course so are the characters. McAdams in particular does a fine job as the cold Christine, relishing the cutthroat viciousness of her lines.
In its first half, the film is also a study in fine-tuned pacing, never rushing through the setup and meticulously building suspense off of McAdams and Rapace's chemistry. If the second half proves unsurprising about its "shocking" revelations, that's hardly worth complaining about here: It's all genre, after all. What drags the movie down, rather, is that, unlike Steven Soderbergh's tightly wound Side Effects, De Palma lets some slack loosen up the line of his plot as he goes through the motions of his third act.
Most of these criticisms bounce straight off the film, however, since it's fairly clear that Passion's script — adapted by De Palma from the French thriller Crime d'amour -- is largely a vehicle for beautiful design and visual flair. De Palma's shots are an utter delight for their precision; Christine's fuchsia dresses punch against the primary colors of the ultramodern office in which she works. Even the characters' hair colors are planned for maximum visual appeal: Christine, Isabelle and Isabelle's inquisitive assistant form a complementary trio of blonde, brunette and redhead.
As the film goes on, De Palma's cinematography becomes increasingly audacious, his framing tilted on odd angles, his camera swooping into tight close-ups or smoothly slithering after the characters. That this all gives the film a significant artificiality has its opposite positive: Passion is also emphatically cool.
In all these respects, De Palma resembles Pedro Almodovar, another director working in or paying homage to time-tested genres, and one who can be counted on to pull you in through his mastery of style even when his films get too outlandish.
Passion has its excesses, but it revels in them — and you know there's not a drop more or less excess than De Palma wanted. Amid all the beauty, it's this rigor and control that ultimately prove such a pleasure.