The beginning of Brian De Palma's Passion plays out like the entry point in a professional battle. Rachel McAdams' Christine and Noomi Rapace's Isabelle look at a computer screen, frustrated over the misfires in their latest ad campaign. They talk shop, they drink, and just the slightest hint of competition breaks through the interplay as Isabelle briefly sits alone on Christine's posh couch – arms spread, palms down on the soft cushion like a plebeian sneaking a moment on the royal throne. There's a whiff of sexuality in the air and a playful melody suggesting a classic professional battle set on modern women's terms. But that would be sane, and Passion isn't about sanity. It's a mind-boggling feature of illogicality playing in the confines of De Palma's distinctive eye.
Based on Alain Corneau's 2010 film (removing the original's age-gap power play), Passion is a bizarre tale one straightjacket scene away from being an asylum delusion. Christine and Isabelle flirt, bond and battle with a fierce and preposterous intensity – reality quickly crumbling under a rising, overwrought melodrama. This is classic De Palma, if his cinematic mind was also injected with the likes of Russ Meyer, Guy Maddin and films like Eyes Wide Shut and Wild Things. Christine openly embraces a last-minute campaign idea from Isabelle, only to steal it when it impresses company bigwigs. The latter is furious, but far from innocent in this game, having slept with Christine's lover without the slightest apprehension. Each woman becomes increasingly unhinged in the battle as Isabelle's assistant (Karoline Herfurth) is the watchful eye uncovering both women's dirty secrets.
In a recent interview, De Palma called Passion "a women's film," and it is, insofar that it stars a selection of actresses. But this is a sexy, maniacal delusion that plays out like a can't-help-but-laugh '60s exploitation flick rather than a modern woman's drama. In fact, the film is a mosaic of recognizable moments and themes, each one hinting at a different world without ever grabbing a narrative hold. One minute, it might be an erotic thriller; the next, a campy investigation of interoffice politics; the next, a comedy; and the next, a murder mystery. Eras mix together as McAdams almost purrs her lines like a black-and-white femme fatale in ridiculous, modern-day stilettos, as she paints dark red lips onto her enemy/protege Isabelle, and even as De Palma whips out his recognizable split screen for the film's big plot twist.
Though rife with empty passions, Passion still manages to be fun. This isn't the women's film he meant to offer, and it's certainly not a dramatic erotic thriller. It's pure camp through and through – the most convoluted dog-eat-dog murder mystery to hit screens in some time. Moviegoers expecting a return of classic De Palma will be disappointed, but those who go in with a humorous spirit, plied with multiple rounds of alcohol and frivolity, should be adequately amused and wide-eyed with disbelief.