Brian De Palma returns to the sleek, sly, seductive territory of Dressed To Kill with an erotic corporate thriller fueled by sex, ambition, image, envy and the dark, murderous side of PASSION. The film stars Rachel McAdams (Midnight In Paris, Sherlock Holmes, Mean Girls) and Noomi Rapace (Prometheus, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as two rising female executives in a multinational corporation whose fierce competition to rise up the ranks is about to turn literally cut-throat.
As the maze-like story begins, Christine (McAdams) – a gorgeous, powerful executive at an international ad agency in Berlin — is searching for a killer idea to impress her bosses, helped by her clever but naïve protégé Isabelle (Rapace). Isabelle admires Christine’s polish and devotion to her work and Christine feeds on Isabelle’s admiration. But when Isabelle comes up with a brilliant viral marketing idea that wows the client, it is Christine who gleefully takes the credit.
Thus begins what starts out as typical office back-stabbing – or “just business,” as Christine explains it — yet soon turns into something ferocious and primal. As Christine and Isabelle jockey for power, a cat-and-mouse game of scheming – professional, sexual and ultimately homicidal — erupts between the two women. But as they become more and more entangled in each other’s ambitions, desires and dreams, who will be the greater manipulator, and who will have the final revenge?
With his trademark mix of wit, melodrama and lush cinematic style, De Palma peels back the layers of a spiraling murder mystery that is as full of jet-black humor and villainous fun as it with doubts and suspense. For deep beneath the icy, cool veneer of modern life and work, De Palma playfully exposes a realm where the wildest passions rage.
Entertainment One presents a Saïd Ben Saïd presentation of a co-production between SBS Productions, Integral Film and France 2 Cinema with the participation of Canal Plus, French Televisions, Cine Plus, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Deutscher Filmforderfunds and Wild Bunch of a Brian De Palma film, Passion. The film stars Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Karoline Herfurth and Paul Anderson. The screenplay is written by De Palma with additional dialogue by Nathalie Carter based on the French film “Crime D’Amour.” The producer is Said Ben Said and the co-producer is Alfred Hurmer. The international behind-the-scenes team includes cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine (The Skin I Live In, Volver), production designer Cornelia Ott (Unknown, The Ghost Writer, Black Book), costume designer Karen Muller Surreau (Amour), editor Francois Gedigier (On The Road) and composer Pino Donaggio, whose earlier collaboration with De Palma include the horror classic Carrie and Dressed To Kill.
Throughout a career that has spanned four decades and some of the most suspenseful and provocative films of contemporary cinema, Brian De Palma’s storytelling has been fueled, informed and inspired by the shifting fascinations of popular culture. In Carrie, based on the blockbuster Stephen King novel, he exposed the shocking horror beneath the allure of teen-aged angst and high-school drama. In Dressed To Kill he stripped the popular crime thriller down to its erotic core of sexual obsessions. With Scarface he flipped the American gangster movie into a moral fable of brutal excess in the name of ambition. In Mission: Impossible, he re-tooled the Cold War spy movie into a breathless exploration of paranoia via high-tech style.
Now, with his new film, Passion, De Palma puts his own twist on the latest incarnation of the thriller: the corporate thriller set against our 21st Century enthrallment with money, power, image and control. But this deadly corporate battle unfolds between two beautiful, complicated, ambitious women who have taken the gloves off and become as aggressive and merciless as any of their male higher-ups in the boy’s club. Using the divergent personalities of Rachel McAdams as the icy blonde executive Christine and Noomi Rapace as her secretive brunette protégé Isabelle, De Palma tells a story of go-getting that has gone too far — to a deliciously dark place, where these two characters have come to believe that any desire, no matter how kinky or vengefully wicked, can be attained if you’re willing to work hard, do your research and abandon all morals.
The film is De Palma’s remake of the late French filmmaker Alain Corneau’s final thriller, Crimes D’Amour (Love Crimes), which was celebrated in Europe both as a compelling mystery and a darkly comical satire of corporate amorality. The film particularly stood out as a rare battle between two strong, even fearsome, female leads.
Intrigued by that set-up, De Palma revisited the story line. His screenplay changed the dynamic between Christine and Isabelle, who in the original movie were a middle-aged mentor and her young assistant, to make them the same age, and equal in ambition if not initially in power. He also reshaped the structure to add a dream-like veil over the events, one that keeps the audience guessing through a series of sudden twists and dizzying reversals.
“I was drawn to the story because it is a thriller, which to me is the best genre for visual storytelling, and I also felt it had that certain element of fun to it. It’s also a genre that I haven’t really done since Raising Caine, 22 years ago,” De Palma notes, referring to his 1992 psychological thriller involving twins, mind games, alter-egos and murder.
He goes on: “I liked the characters in the Alain Corneau film but I thought of a different way to reveal the film’s central murder. I rewrote the script so that there were constant surprises, many possible suspects and so that you do not know for sure who is the murderer. I also worked out quite a few tricks to have the audience believe one thing when actually, something else is happening.”
At the heart of De Palma’s take on the screenplay lies the push-and-pull between Christine and Isabelle, who are not as different as they may seem at the beginning of the film. “Both women are competitive and manipulative,” the writer/director muses. “In the course of the story, each uses every kind of power play there is with the other – erotic plays, emotional plays, psychological plays – in order to try to solidify her position.”
As is typical of De Palma, the characters each harbor secret sides that emerge when they are frightened, humiliated, turned on or under pressure. “Isabelle comes across as a bit of a nerd at first because she is only focused on her work and it seems not much else matters to her. Christine is much more into appearances and she obviously knows how to work the system,” he explains. “What Christine wants is clear: she wants to be head of the company, she wants to be as powerful as she can, and she wants to be loved. She considers Isabelle a very valuable pawn, but when that pawn gets out of control, she turns vindictive.”
That vindictiveness, however, doesn’t keep Isabelle in check once she gets a taste of success. On the contrary, it seems to awaken in her a devilish side that only grows darker and darker. “Isabelle is extremely clever and manipulative, but you never see that side of her coming at all. She’s very surprising and that is what also makes her very dangerous,” De Palma concludes.
De Palma later brought in screenwriter Natalie Carter who wrote the original script for Love Crimes with Alain Corneau to further enrich the redrawn characters, and lend them a female perspective. But the final script certainly seemed to speak to many of the compelling themes that have swirled through De Palma’s films for decades – especially those of obsession, double identities, outrageous behavior and the destructive cracks that can lie in wait under even the most beautiful and elegant veneers. The film also was a fresh opportunity for De Palma to do what he loves most: to play in a mirror-like fashion with the most lush and recognizable visual themes from the whole pantheon of noir thrillers, including his own, and to push the conventions of high melodrama all the way to their most intensified edges.
As to why he has long found the concept of life’s look-alikes, doubles and doppelgangers so enticing, De Palma admits: “I have no idea. But in many of my movies, I also repeat a situation that brings guilt, like when Christine says she feels responsible for her twin sister Clarissa’s accident. It occurred to me that when I was very young, there was a brutality that ran rampage over the weaker ones in my family. That was true of my father, my mother and my older brother Bruce. I was 10, my other brother Bart was 12, he was very sensitive and vulnerable, and I wanted to protect him from such rage. But I was never able to do it because I was a child. Hence the guilt!”
Masks are another theme that winds through the story – expressed both in the actual death-like mask of Christine’s face that Isabelle finds in her apartment and the psychic masks we all wear. “Here the idea was that the very stylized mask of Christine’s face that she puts on her sexual partners . . . creates the sense that she is constantly making love to herself,” observes De Palmas. “The mask might also represent her mythical twin sister . . . who may or may not exist.”
Dreams, nightmares and fantasies are constantly in play in PASSION, leaving the reality of what the audience is watching a persistent question. To De Palma, this was key to his adaptation. “I am always dreaming solutions to the problems in my movies while I am asleep,” he explains. “And PASSION is like a constant dream where you don’t know what is true or not until you wake up. By weaving the crime procedural stuff into a very stylized dream world, it becomes more fun.”
Part of that fun is leaving the audience in a state of not having all the puzzle’s pieces until the very last scene. “I constructed the movie so that you would have no idea who really completed the murder until the entire mystery is unraveled,” concludes De Palma. “And that is the way a mystery should be.”
A large part of creating Passion would lie in the casting of the two women who form the darkly competitive heart of the mystery. De Palma notes that casting Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace brought the characters into sharper focus – and also added a sharp erotic edge beyond what even he had anticipated.
“In the original movie, Alain Corneau tiptoed around the sexual attraction between the characters. But Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams played it straight out. I did not say to them ‘kiss each other and be erotic.’ They just did it. And it was quite effective,” he says.
He adds: “Noomi and Rachel had already worked together on Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and knew each other well enough that they were able to leave the comfort zone and venture into more dangerous territory. They were unafraid to go anywhere with each other, which makes their duet very dynamic and compelling to watch.”
McAdams came to the fore as the wicked teen “queen bee” Regina George in the comedy Mean Girls and has gone on to play a variety of romantic, dramatic and comedic roles including the Southern belle who has an affair with Ryan Gosling in The Notebook; an ambitious morning news producer in the comedy Morning Glory; and Owen Wilson’s nagging wife in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. To De Palma, she had all the shadings needed to make Christine at once compellingly attractive, obsessively ambitious and capable of the most malevolent backstabbing.
“Rachel is very sexy and she had great fun playing a very evil woman,” says De Palma. “Actresses don’t always like to play manipulative women like Christine, but Rachel went all out for it.”
McAdams sees Christine as someone who takes her need for absolute control beyond the pale as she tries to keep her protégé Isabelle from outdoing her. “She basically terrorizes Isabelle to the point that she completely breaks her down . . . only then, to her surprise, Isabelle retaliates. In a way, Christine is like some kind of a succubus,” she says, referring to the legend of a female demon who uses her powers of seduction to steal victims’ souls. “She finds new talent like Isabelle, she hones it and then tries to use it to her own best advantage.”
Bringing to life Christine’s shadowy side – her ladder-climbing, her willingness to betray someone with a smile, her intense sexual needs – was one thing for McAdams. But equally key was to bring to light Christine’s blindness. “I think Christine really is not fully aware of what Isabelle might be capable of,” she comments. “She doesn’t see what a dangerous game they are playing until it is way too late.”
Noomi Rapace also came rapidly to the fore in a breakout role – that of Steig Larssen’s bleak and brilliant punk-waif computer hacker Lisbeth Salander in the original, acclaimed Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Celebrated for her haunting depths of darkness, she reprised the role in The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. She went on to take starring roles in several Hollywood productions, including Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, with McAdams, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.
De Palma was drawn to her ability to go to unsettling places. “Noomi can be very scary as Isabelle because you don’t really know what is going on her head and you believe she is capable of killing somebody,” he remarks.
For Rapace, the intrigue of the role lay in taking Isabelle further and further into the swirling morass of her ambition. She was especially drawn to the setting in an international ad agency devoted to the glossy imagery that fuels 24-7 consumer desire around the globe. “What’s interesting is that these characters are trapped in the world of advertising and commercials. It’s one of those worlds where you always need to be on top of your game and one step ahead in your ideas,” she notes.
Isabelle believes she is indeed one step ahead when she comes up with an original idea for a new smart phone ad that becomes a viral video sensation. But when Christine claims she was the brains behind it, hurting both Isabelle’s feelings and career prospects, Isabelle sees that she needs to escalate their rivalry. “I think Isabelle sees Christine as someone she can watch and learn how to play the game through,” observes Rapace. “Inside I think she believes she can be even better and more successful than Christine. And it becomes like a dance between the two of them.”
The dance takes a turn, however, when Christine cruelly humiliates Isabelle, a moment that changes everything. “When Isabelle realizes that Christine’s weapons are so much more refined than hers, it drives her to the darkest possible place inside herself,” says Rapace. “ When she gets humiliated in front of other people, it’s as if the door to all her demons flies wide open. It’s almost as if Christine is unplugging her.”
The jockeying between the two women expands to involve Christine’s boyfriend, Dirk (Paul Anderson), who becomes a sexual pawn between them; and Dani, Isabelle’s hard-working, young assistant who harbors a secret, unfulfilled passion of her own. Taking the role of Dani is German actress Karoline Herfurth, known in the U.S. for roles in Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story Of a Murderer and Stephen Daldry’s The Reader.
“Karoline is a very popular star in Germany,” notes De Palma. “She is a terrific actress and in this nest of vipers, Dani is the only one who seemingly has a heart. Unfortunately for her, she is in love with Isabelle.”
Says Herfurth of Dani: “She has two things in her life: work and her love for her boss. And she’s so passionately in love that she doesn’t see the line between the two. What all these characters share in common is that dark side where they are willing to go very far to get what they want.”
At the ballet
As Christine and Isabelle’s rivalry turns into a kind of wicked pas de deux between two beautiful, articulate women, Brian De Palma takes the film literally to the ballet. In one of the film’s most ambitious sequences, an act of murder is carried out while dancers on stage glide through the intense dramatics and emotions of Jerome Robbins’ modern staging of the classic Nijinsky-Debussy ballet “Afternoon of a Faun,” based on the Mallarmé poem about dreams and desire.
The ballet is a fitting match with the story of PASSION. Robbins transformed the story of a faun and a flirtatious nymph by replacing them with contemporary dancers rehearsing in an austere studio, as fascinated by their images in the mirror as in their sensuous connection with one another. Like the battle between Christine and Isabelle, the ballet is in part about the various versions of ourselves that we project to the world.
Says De Palma: “It’s the perfect ballet because it is about the kiss of death. Isabelle kisses Christine like a mafia kingpin would kiss someone who is going to die. And in the choreography of Jerome Robbins, based on the famous piece by Debussy, the dancer suddenly kisses the ballerina on the cheek and in a way violates her, just as Isabelle is violating Christine.”
The structure of the ballet also struck De Palma. He continues: “Because the ballet uses a three wall set, the dancers are facing the audience as though looking into the mirrored wall of the studio. In the film, this allowed me to have them look straight into the camera, which breaks the rule of the 4th wall and brings an odd quality to the scene. Alfred Hitchcock also used that kind of ‘first person camera’ sometimes, like in The Paradise Case. Later on, when Isabelle is arrested by the police, I used it again to maximize the interrogation scene.”
To bring the ballet to life on screen, he utilized the exceptional skills of two lead dancers from the Staatsballet Berlin: Russian-trained ballerina Polina Semionova partnered with Turkish-born Ibrahim Oyku Onal.
De Palma further utilized a split-screen technique to offset the ballet with the events unfolding in Christine’s apartment as she slips out of her clothes to await a mysterious late-night tryst. The side-by-side imagery leaves open the question of who is seeing what and how the events are ordered.
De Palma explains: “It is always very tricky when you set up someone to be killed. Normally it is very tense and quiet around the house but everybody has seen that a million times. So I approached the scene in an entirely different way by using the split screen, which I have not done in a while, and by getting the audience engrossed in a very beautiful ballet on the one side while Christine is being slashed on the other side. I have no idea how the audience will react to this juxtaposition of something so romantic with something so violent, but I like the strangeness of it. You sense you are in a danger zone, without being sure of what will happen next.”
The meticulously stylized look of PASSION hearkens back to Brian De Palma’s own undying passion for the formalist beauty of classic cinema. A life-long student of the movies, and of the world’s most influential directors, his films pay homage to, comment upon and sometimes subvert scenes that we have seen in legendary films of past eras. In keeping with his love of the sheer exquisiteness of Golden Age cinema, De Palma shot Passion on 35mm to retain that lushness only film can provide.
To further emphasize the luminosity of his actresses, De Palma brought in cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, who is renowned for his vibrant, multi-chromatic work with Pedro Almodovar on such films as Volver and The Skin I Live In, for their first collaboration together. Like De Palma, Alcaine is fascinated by using light to sculpt and texture a story’s drama.
“Jose comes from a classical background of cinematography, so he got what I wanted immediately. And most of all, he really knows how to photograph women,” comments De Palma. “Few cinematographers truly understand how to make them look beautiful – and that was essential for me in this film. Also, it is particularly hard to shoot a film noir in color. But thanks to him the image looks terrific.”
De Palma admits that filming women in alluring and revealing ways is an endless obsession. “As I’ve said over and over again, I prefer photographing women over men,” he muses. “And here we have two absolutely drop dead gorgeous women who were not afraid of nudity. However, this film is not only about women, it is also for women, which is why I wanted to keep it very elegant and restrained. This also goes for the violence in the story – I purposefully did not make it explicit.”
The film was shot entirely in Berlin, although inside the sterile multinational tower where the characters work — or inside Christine’s sleek apartment and bedroom – the characters could be living in any modern metropolis anywhere in the world. The city not only provided De Palma with highly experienced crews for the production but with such eye-catching architecture as Frank Gehry’s contemporary study in geometry, the DZ Bank building, and the stately, domed Bode museum, erected in 1914. “These buildings really helped add to the ambience of the film,” notes the director.
Glass, mirrors and screens both large and small cast their gleaming reflections throughout the film’s visuals, commenting both upon the nature of modern urban living, the illusions of the consumer advertising world and the self-delusions and projections of the characters themselves. Within the film, De Palma also created the commercial that Isabelle comes up with for their smartphone client. After tinkering with another, more dreamlike idea, he based the ad on a real “viral marketing” internet sensation, but one that also involves projected images.
“I went on the internet and came across a commercial that went viral,” De Palma recalls. “It was about two Australian girls who stick a phone in one of the girls back pocket and walk around town photographing people looking at one girl’s bum. They put it on the internet and millions of people saw it. It looked as if two girlfriends were just having some fun. But they turned out to be clever advertising executives and this was really an advertisement for the phone. So I did exactly the same in the movie with Isabelle who is supposed to be a creative genius and her assistant Dani.”
Adding another layer of intrigue and emotion to the film is the score by Pino Donaggio, a long-time collaborator with De Palma, who here brings a menagerie of musical cues that playfully offset or highlight the drama on screen. With his ability to move seamlessly from the comic to the sensual to the intense, Donnaggio’s music seems to match De Palma’s sensibility.
“I knew that Pino would know how to write the kind of terror-dream music I needed for this film,” says the director. “He did it for Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double and Raising Cain. The last sequence is essential and it had to be absolutely right. Even though we had not worked together in 22 years, he knows me very well and once I gave him a suggestion, he came up with incredible stuff. “
All of the film’s elements help to carve out a structure that, like a set of nesting Russian dolls, unfolds dreams within dreams, deceptions within deceptions. De Palma says he likes to give the audience visual hint that they are about to leave the comfort of reality behind, and then he never looks back.
“When we get to the dreams, everything suddenly becomes tilted and you get a very stylized noir lightning. As soon as you get the stripes that look like Venetian blinds across the walls, watch out . . . you are in dreamland! Except that sometimes… we think we are in a dream, or rather a nightmare, but it is really happening,” he laughs, then concludes: “I am playing constantly with that all through the movie, all in order to keep the audience off balance.”