Tuesday, September 18, 2012

NYFF: Brian De Palma's Passion

A Film By Brian De Palma

This is the first in a series of posts about the 50th New York Film Festival. Look for coverage also in upcoming episodes of The Cinephiliacs, as well as other outlets as they are announced.

            Seeing is believing in Passion, the latest hypnotic work from the legendary Brian De Palma. Throughout the film we are exposed to digital cameras that record our inner desires, truths, and fantasies. Perhaps that’s why the director took the narrative from the French film Love Crime, a melodrama that includes some naughty sex and even naughtier violence, because his interest in the text is only secondary for his visual text. He’s beyond any convention of classical narrative filmmaking (though one might have to ask when he ever was) and engrosses you with his ecstatic vision.

            This is De Palma doing what he does best, which means those who aren’t converted will most likely throw their hands up at the film’s ghastly direct dialogue, constant twists, and in-your-face crassness. De Palma doesn’t seem interested in bringing anyone up to speed who hasn’t drunk his Kool-Aid. But within his world, he indulges as he has wont to do with his emblematic color palette that exposes a world of truth and lies as told by cameras and hidden by performance.

De Palma’s last time at the festival was none other than his shambling disaster Redacted, yet the film’s parallels are obvious from the get go as Rachael McAdams and Noomi Rapace stare at a screen. They are master and servant in the world of corporate advertising, a sexual ferocity always willing to bubble over into soft-core pornography with every line of dialogue (plus a phallic bottle of liquor sitting right in front of them). Christine (McAdams) and Isabelle (Rapace) are working on a campaign for a smart phone, and during the middle of the night (as Christine indulges in some kinky mask and blindfold sex), Isabelle comes up with the idea for a campaign that involves an “ass cam” joke in which her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth, a redhead with a fire both on the outside and inside) walks around in tight jeans and the camera exposes those who stare. It’s one of the great De Palma jokes in the film, but also the most essential: the camera exposes true desire and want, and as we laugh, we also realize that the image being presented only though cameras shows what men (and women) truly think.

Such a relationship to the exposure of reality is essential, because so much of Passion is about the deception of real life performance. Christine and Isabelle duel and spar around promotions, boyfriends (both are cheating, but it seems also on each other), and their own disdain for each other (“it’s not backstabbing” is a repeated quip). De Palma never gives us the inner exposure of his two women, they play around with clothes and make up. Isabelle always dresses in pure black, and when Christine adds on red shoes and lipstick, it’s an intrusion onto the body, Meanwhile, Christine goes for the garish and big—Hitchcock reds and blues (a cross that could also double as a dagger dangling from her neck and three watches hanging on her wrist), and in one scene, she sits on her couch garmented in a golden satin robe and black lingerie, spread out like a queen, or at least demanding to be one.

As Passion proceeds the frames become more expressive and more subjective, switching at one point to almost five minutes straight of subjective point of view shots. But again, what can we trust in the world of performance? De Palma flurries his camera through the action—push ins, zooms, and in the film’s central piece, a brilliant split screen use that only reveals its true revelations at the end as it plays with again our vision of watching. And while he leads us down one road—the cinematic frames suggest one answer, the truth once again lies in the recorded image. Like The Black Dahlia, the most real thing on screen is that which we see though screens. It counts that De Palma shot the film on 35mm* (though it is being presented digitally) because it marks the difference between the way things are captured on digital versus film. As Bazin would argue, film still has an ontological relationship to the real (the so called “indexical image”), but in De Palma’s Passion, that connection to the real is why the moments of “reality” we see fail us. It is only those we see on digital—camera phones, security cameras, and other now ordinary objects of recording—that expose truth, despite having no relationship to it.

As Passion heads toward its resolution, a series of dreams within dreams, the film becomes a brilliant play on reality, even as the performance is exposed. There are no answers—just haunting guilt that will never settle, a series of lies that can’t be unraveled. Lies become truth, answers become questions, and we are left unsettled. The only thing left that is real is that which has no real in it.

*Thanks Simon Abrams for pointing this out. Read his interview with De Palma here.

1 comment:

Chris said...

You made me want to see "Redacted" because I'd love to see how "Redacted" "Passion" relate to each other. I haven't seen "Passion" yet, but hopefully I'll get to see it early next year.

I like your line "real-life performance" because it reminds me of all the many critics that described Rachel McAdams's "performance" of a performance as "scenery chewing." I see "scenery chewing" and "real-life performance" every day at my job, where it's corporate backstabbing at every turn.

I can't wait to see De Palma's take on all that backstabbing and the consequences of that backstabbing.