Friday, September 6, 2013
Passion - dir. Brian De Palma. 2012. Lincoln Center.
A pretentious boardroom-and-bedroom thriller in which ‘high-powered advertising executive’ Rachel McAdams plays sick sexual and professional power games with underling Noomi Rapace.
Vile De Palma retread garbage. A throwback to his Hitchcock rip-offs and the days of the Erotic Thriller. A film that may be misperceived by those hungry to rationalize their enjoyment of it as “critical” of any number of things to which it merely makes reference: capitalism, surveillance, corporate culture, the gaze etc. Pino Donaggio's flattering, lubed-up score removes whatever possibility for critical distance from the film's images there might have been. That said, it is not without occasional insight.
McAdams gives a spot-on portrayal of the kind of high-functioning psychopath whom we are told live among us in large numbers undetected and are especially numerous in the upper echelons of the business world. Her character is a kind of female Patrick Bateman, only whereas Bateman was an artistic conceit who alternated between realism and satirical excess, McAdams’ character seems more like a symptom of the above-referenced pop-sci discourses about the Psychos Among Us, discourses that medicalize the social pathologies of late capitalism rather than politicize them.
The film perspicaciously presents business and sex as spheres of activity where it is socially acceptable to behave in an amoral manner. (Is it perspicacious or just symptomatic? Is there a difference?) The film’s big obvious statement about capitalism comes when McAdams wins a promotion by taking credit for Rapace’s idea for a successful marketing campaign. McAdams tells Rapace not to resent her for being strong, clever, and amoral enough to take credit for her ideas. “I saw my chance, and I took it. There’s no backstabbing here. It’s just business.” To make sure we get the message, the film has Rapace repeat these same words back to McAdams when she gets her payback. McAdams might as well have said, “It’s just sex,” for the same amoral philosophy reigns in the bedroom. A love triangle develops between McAdams, Rapace, and McAdams’ lover/business partner Paul Anderson, with all three parties using the other two ruthlessly for their own self-interest. McAdams is supposed to be some kind of a kink queen, and if the evidence—lace blindfolds, handcuffs, anal beads, strap-ons, dog masks, leashes, a mask molded on her own face for her lovers to wear while they please her (Do you get it?!)—all seems a bit 90’s, that just shows how quickly mainstream notions of permissible sexual behavior have expanded in recent years. The moral attitude taken towards sex has been applied to the realm of economics, or is it the other way around? Anything goes and the only ethical obligation one has is actualize oneself—to pursue one’s desires to the fullest, desires to be fulfilled, in the main, through the domination of others.
There is something parodical about the corporate-speak dialogue of the film. It is the pure, almost abstract form of bullshit. "Did you see the numbers in the latest report?! And the revisions?!" "You're right they're full of shit!" Not the slightest effort is made to tailor a single line of dialogue to the particularities of any character's voice. There is no difference in the way that any of the characters think or express themselves. Any line of dialogue could just as easily have been said by one character as another, or by a computer for that matter. The dialogue and the characters are totally flat, unindividuated. One scene is set up by McAdams telling Rapace, "See that guy over there, the bald guy with his nose in his drink? He's a very big fish for our company. You land him, you can run the account." It sounds like text on a PowerPoint slide for the role-playing segment of a corporate training seminar. It makes me shudder to think that any human being would find this generic expression of a generic situation the kind of relatable, high stakes dramatic situation they would pay money to have represented and glamorized for them by a motion picture. In scene after scene, it is as though the screenwriters wrote a summary of the scene and then put that summary, verbatim, in the mouths of the characters.
It will not spoil anything to say that Rapace enacts vengeance against her tormentor and that this vengeance leaves Rapace broken and insane. In the end, the underling is punished--by the film--for her revolt, a revolt which the film depicts as doomed to fail, not because the system was against her (for to depict her failure as the consequence of systemic injustice would still be a critical gesture--see Soderbergh's similar but far superior Side Effects), but because she was weak. The film sides with McAdams and the corporate Nietschean superwomen of the world.
Lincoln Center was the worst place in the world to watch this film for it is the one place in the world where the audience would take it seriously.