It's lovely women in the midst of forbidden love and brutal backstabbing in the midst of business conflicts getting all too carried away, so this would be pretty awesome if that premise description didn't make this sound like "Showgirls 2: The Show Must Go On". This is more-or-less Brian De Palma's big comeback to making Paul Verhoeven films, or at least an attempt to make up for the failure that was De Palma's last Verhoeven-esque erotic thriller, "Femme Fatale". The failure of "Femme Fatale" is reflected in volumes by the fact that this film is, in fact, bound to be more successful, because this is still not that big of a critical success, let alone a commercial success. I reckon De Palma would have a serious hit on his hands if he just said, "Forget it", and made this the film his career has been leading up to by fully satisfying teenaged boys everywhere with explosions and Scarface-style crimery, in addition to all of the erotic intensity, which would be fitting. They just have to be able to afford that, because just about every European country is involved in this production, or at least most of the Romantic ones, and yet, no one could come up with a more creative title to reflect the film's sleaziness. I think that they can sum up the heat of this drama just by promoting Noomi Rapace, because then you can kind of think of this as "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" if it was all about Lisbeth Salander's sexual misadventures, and featured a much less metalhead and much more well-nourished Lisbeth Salander hooking up with Rachel McAdams... only, you know, not as much fun. This film is decent, I suppose, but it isn't quite as thrilling as certain other De Palma films, let alone as thrilling as "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"... by David Fincher (I know Rapace was in the first, but come on, even you European film snobs have to admit that Fincher's version was a whole lot more exciting), and for a couple of reasons.
Among the more notable problems with this very flawed film is underdevelopment, as there is no immediate background information and only so much progressive exposition behind this narrative and its characters, whose thoroughly unlikable traits are brought more to your attention by the developmental shortcomings, but were always to be seriously palpable, due to their often falling among the many dramatic aspects that get pretty carried away. Brian De Palma's and Natalie Carter's script is typically simply questionable with its drawing of questionable scenarios and character types, yet there are times where the writing descends into hopelessly histrionic, maybe even soapy melodrama that drives too many aspects of the dramatic narrative, and isn't even all that refreshing. The least that this film could do would be to go some distance off of the usual beat and path of formula of erotic melodramas of its type, but histrionics go backed by familiarity, resulting in a trite feel, and yet, not matter how much De Palma and Carter force in meat, natural shortcomings remain considerable. I suppose this story concept is reasonably intriguing, even with certain histrionics, but through, if not with the melodramatically juicy shell is a bland core of simple business sleaze, broken up by erotic intensity that would be more biting if direction was more inspired. Even the telling of a somewhat limp story has a degree of limpness to it, which bloats plot structuring with excess material, often to the point of focal lapses, made all the more aimless-feeling by many a moment in which meditativeness runs out of material to soak up, resulting in blandness, if not a hint of dullness or distance to what resonance there is. For a conceptually heated character thriller, there's something cold about this film, which doesn't quite chill itself into mediocrity, yet still falls firmly into underwhelmingness under serious natural and consequential storytelling issues, many of which aren't even refreshing. This is a pretty formulaic erotic thriller, yet, like I said, steam is never completely lost, going sustained by a decent amount of inspiration, and even some striking visuals.
Veteran Spanish cinematographer José Luis Alcaine is not especially stylish with camera plays, nor is he even all that dynamic with lighting plays here, yet generally sticks with a lighting and coloring style that practically compensates for cinematographic limitations with sheer overwhelmingly intense softness to lighting that emphasizes the glamour of the environment and characters beautifully, and with a certain thematic weight. The tasteful style to the cinematography and, to a certain extent, fine environment emphasis are not simply unique, at least in comparison to plenty of other aspects of this formulaic thriller, but capture the sleazy, yet slick flair of this subject matter's tone and thematic core, and for this, some credit is due to Brian De Palma, at least as director. Of course, De Palma's directorial strengths don't quite end there, and while De Palma's dry meditations prove to not simply be blanding, but emotionally distancing in their slowing things down enough for you to meditate upon many writing issues and natural shortcomings, when material for De Palma to soak up really kicks in, the meditativeness really works, playing with atmospheric score work by Pino Donaggio and disconcerting imagery in order to capture intrigue, if not tension. The film is kind of lacking in erotic heat, yet there is still a fair bit of bite to De Palma's near-noirish storytelling, and even to the story that Alain Corneau introduced, just before his passing, through 2010's "Love Crime". This minimalist story concept has only so much kick to it, and it's hard to ignore that when its interpretation proves to be undercooked and hopelessly melodramatic, yet this is still a juicy tale, charged by grippingly sleazy, if somewhat unlikable characters, who are themselves charged by performances that do about as much as anything in carrying this messy opus. It's always difficult to get all that invested in these problematically drawn characters, but I would have been further distanced from them if they weren't so well-portrayed, particularly by the leads, with Rachel McAdams being about as convincing as she can be as the almost satirically stereotypically low-down woman of business and backstabbing, while Noomi Rapace convinces even more, not necessarily with her admittedly dodgy faux accent, but with her very strong and well-layered portrayal of a well-intentioned, but flawed woman who learns much of the sleazy depths of business and people as she suffers through several rocky relationships. It's a while before material picks up for Rapace, but when the opportunity for dramatic power presents itself, Rapace delivers, joining a fair bit of inspiration to style and storytelling in keeping the final product alive as a decent, if somewhat cold thriller.
When what heat there is in the first place to this film finally dies down, you're left with a thriller whose natural shortcomings go too stressed by underdevelopment, melodrama and pacing problems - whose aimlessness goes exacerbated by atmospheric cold spells - to escape underwhelmingness, but striking cinematography, generally reasonably endearing direction and some strong performances - particularly the lead one by Noomi Rapace - do enough justice to this story concept's weight to make Brian De Palma's "Passion" a fairly engaging erotic thriller, in spite of its shortcomings and limitations in heat.
2.5/5 - Fair