Aug. 27 2013 08:09 PM

Brian De Palma's new thriller is one nasty parlor game for the 21st century

McAdams (left) and Rapace, engaged in—chemistry

Brian De Palma's lustrous thriller Passion is one nasty parlor game. It constructs a sleek 21st-century world where fantasy is as pervasive as technology or sex. The desire to fulfill such urges drives us to befriend and betray, compete and consume. 

Hints of primary color populate the crisp modern architecture and décor, giving reality a dreamlike glow and infusing delusions with a scary sense of contorted normalcy. Sometimes, even hallucinations have hallucinations.

Filling such a hyper-realized space are couture-dressed players who love to play. De Palma introduces advertising executive Christine (Rachel McAdams), a sumptuous viper who is so sincerely matter-of-fact about her double crosses that they almost feel like compliments. Her talented and naïve protégé, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), at first seems like the perfect lamb to Christine's lion, someone ripe for indoctrination or perhaps destruction. But her innocence is just a mask.

That Passion opens with a close-up of the Apple logo before pulling back to reveal both lead actors in a tight medium shot engaged by a laptop screen tells you everything about De Palma's dark sense of humor. With nearly every facet of life on display for mass consumption, our public and private identities have become organically linked through post-modern media platforms (watch out for the great "ass-cam" set-piece). 

Drinking wine in Christine's posh Berlin abode, the two women discuss marketing strategy as if it were just a means to lob flirtatious vibes back and forth. There's chemistry here, and when a sleazy colleague named Dirk (Paul Anderson) eventually interrupts their girl talk, his presence represents an unnatural breach in this all-female hang session. 

But Passion—which opens Friday, Aug. 30, at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp—is not a feminist take down of male hegemony. When these women turn on each other (and, boy, do they turn on each other), it's not because of a guy; it has more to do with Christine and Isabelle's need to control each other's subjective view of fantasy. The backstabbing and deceit invades the corporate workplace, yet it's mostly contained, something deeply personal and unworthy of others' attention. In this sense, Passion is most certainly one of De Palma's most intimate films. 

The art of verbal manipulation plays a key role in the poisonous games these characters play, especially when it comes to Isabelle and her assistant, Dani (Karoline Herfurth). Their relationship suggests that people can be pushed to believe just about any idea if itís framed in the properly toxic context. 

Like all De Palma's work, smooth visual aesthetics (split screens, long takes, first-person-POV shots) help to convey themes of desire and concealment. Late in Passion, stylistic flourishes mark Isabelle's descent into a warped nightmare, distorting her sense of what's real and what's not. Is she simply obsessed with tumbling down the rabbit hole, or is it actually happening?

Passion is so intoxicating because it doesn't try to answer this question. Instead, De Palma opts for a more immersive approach to the way filmmaking and creativity in general can be used to reflect a new kind of corporate hierarchy, one not based around gender, race or wealth, but relentless emotional control. A brilliant split-screen montage juxtaposing a ballet sequence with a grotesque murder exemplifies this idea in thrilling fashion. 

Like a tormented sinner, Christine often confesses to Isabelle that all she wants "is to be loved." Despite her cunning behavior, there's so much truth to that sentiment. For both characters, though, love means something different than traditional affection; it represents the need to devour another's identity and make it a reflection of your own. 

While neither Isabelle nor Christine would be caught dead listening to something like a Justin Timberlake pop song, they have more in common with his lyrics than either would ever admit. With each evocative glare, we know exactly what's on their mind: "It's like you're my mirror." Better watch your back.

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