Brian De Palma has been a figure of flash point intensity and argument throughout his career, from his intertwined explorations of sex and violence in "Dressed to Kill," "Blow Out" and "Body Double" to such giddy popcorn landmarks as "Scarface," "The Untouchables" and "Mission: Impossible."
A true lover and student of movies, he is a regular presence at the Toronto International Film Festival whether he has a new film or not, but this year De Palma will be there to present his "Passion" just a few days after its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.The movie is a remake of Alain Corneau's 2010 French thriller "Love Crime," which starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier as a seasoned executive and an up-and-comer locked into a dynamic of flirtation and manipulation that turns deadly.
Pauline Kael, writing about De Palma's 1976 film "Carrie" — coincidentally enough itself being remade by Kimberly Peirce with Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role — declared the filmmaker as having "the wickedest baroque sensibility at large in American movies." His movies come less frequently nowadays, but his sly sense of self-reference, his own heightened awareness of the Brian De Palma-ness of a Brian De Palma film, hasn't abated with age, making his take on someone else's film both a devilish thriller all its own and a fascinating study in directorial authority. A masterful student of genre mechanics, De Palma this time tinkers under someone else's hood.
The bones of both stories are by and large the same, as a more senior corporate executive (Rachel McAdams in "Passion") steals the credit for an idea from a colleague (Noomi Rapace in the remake). Both personal and professional intrigues abound, full of minor humiliations and major flirtations, bringing the simmering connection between the women to a boil as feelings erupt into dangerous actions. The story of who does what to whom and why is at once simple and complicated.
Perhaps De Palma's most notable change — he wrote the script with an "additional dialogue" credit to Natalie Carter, co-writer with Corneau on the original film — is transforming the relationship between the women from a perverse mentorship in the ways of business and power into a fierce competition by casting McAdams and Rapace in the roles. Where Thomas and Sagnier are separated in age by some 20 years, McAdams and Rapace are barely a year apart. He also repeatedly nudges the audience off-balance with a teasing slippage between the film's reality and the dream life of Rapace's character.
"I saw there were many good things about it, and I saw there were many things I thought I could improve," said De Palma, on the phone from Paris, where he has lived on and off in recent years in addition to New York, of his impression upon seeing "Love Crime" for the first time. "I think it's very difficult to, let's say, remake a classic. This had things that could be made better when you remade it."
Saïd Ben Saïd, producer of both "Love Crime" and "Passion," noted that for all its stylish De Palma-esque intrigues, the filmmaker was never a reference point on the original for the eclectic Corneau. Rather Corneau, who died in 2010 after finishing "Love Crime," saw himself making a Patricia Highsmith story via Mike Nichols' "Working Girl."
"According to me, the movies, they don't tell the same story. The movies are really very different," said Saïd. "In Brian's movie you never know what they have in mind, what's a dream and what's reality, if they lie or if they tell the truth, they are both very manipulative, very dangerous. I think Brian brought all his obsessions to this movie."
"Passion," heading onto the festival circuit without U.S. distribution, was shot last spring in Berlin. Working with cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, a frequent collaborator of Pedro Almodóvar's, De Palma not only makes his female leads look distinctively stunning but also shows a real affinity for modern architecture, dynamically shooting throughout a bank building designed by Frank Gehry. The film also features a lush score by Italian composer Pino Donaggio, working with De Palma for the first time since 1992's "Raising Cain."
If De Palma was frequently accused of aping Alfred Hitchcock earlier in his career, he now has a style of glossy, gliding efficiency that can only be seen as all his own. His signature Steadicam, split-screen and split-focus diopter shots are all present but in direct service of the storytelling.
"I don't think there's any doubt when you know you're in a Brian De Palma movie," Brian De Palma said with a certain sense of understated pride. "They're very different from Hitchcock movies, you're in it for 10 minutes and you know it's the way I do things, the way I look at things. If anything, whatever you can say about me, I've an extremely distinctive style and it's all through my work, whether it's 'Carlito's Way' or 'Carrie.' I have a certain way of visualizing things that are pure me."
Casting both his lead actresses slightly against type, De Palma declared the interplay between Rapace and McAdams "lightning in a bottle." The pair met in real life while making "Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows," in which they both appear but had no scenes together.
McAdams, who referred to her character, Christine, as "a bit of a succubus," acknowledged that she at first assumed she was up for the part of the young initiate originated by Ludivine Sagnier rather than Kristin Scott Thomas' role of the deceptive older executive.
"When I got the script and read it I thought I was playing the other character," McAdams said, "and then I talked to Brian and he said he wanted me to play Christine, which I thought was kind of exciting. I wouldn't have thought of that, so I thought it was a great adjustment that he made. It works the other way too, but this makes it a bit edgier."
De Palma says he has "laid back" in recent years, with "Passion" being his first film since the unusual docudrama "Redacted" in 2007 and the more straightforwardly De Palma-ish "The Black Dahlia" in 2006 and "Femme Fatale" in 2002.
"I've done a lot of really nice movies and movies that people are still talking about that are 30 or 40 years old. I'm very happy with my career, and if I make a few other good ones, great," De Palma said. "I'm basically just working because I enjoy it and it's what I do. I don't feel I have to prove anything to anybody."
He is working on another script with Carter, a remake of the 1986 Burt Reynolds gambling film "Heat," set to star Jason Statham. So he's not done just yet.
"From my own study and realizing as a director you need a tremendous amount of power and stamina to be able to make fine movies, I think any director who is over 60, probably their best films are behind them. They may not want to face up to it, but I think it's true."
Acknowledging that he will soon turn 72 as well as his passion for his new "Passion," De Palma allowed, "Maybe I broke my own rule."