De Palma’s ‘Passion,’ Schrader’s ‘Canyons,’ and the Inertia of Cinematic Idolatry

You’ve got to give it to Brian De Palma: he knows what his audiences expect. His new film Passion (out today in theaters; previously available on demand) features all of the director’s greatest hits: a twisty plot heavy on identity play, a narrative that mostly serves at the pleasure of his baroque set pieces, an obsession with voyeurism (digital, these days), and a boundless appreciation for the pleasures of Sapphic teasing. It’s a De Palma movie through and through; by the time he trots out the split-screen, he’s like Skynyrd finally playing “Freebird” for a crowd that’s been waiting all night for it. It hits all of the beats we expect and will undoubtedly please those who’ve followed his work since the 1970s. But Passion is, outside of those cinephile-pleasing gestures, a pretty bad movie. If it bore any other filmmaker’s name, would we cut it the same slack? It’s a question worth asking — particularly in the shadow of The Canyons, in which De Palma’s contemporary (and onetime collaborator) Paul Schrader finds himself similarly scrounging to recapture his past magic.

Passion arrives right on schedule, inasmuch as every ten years or so, after De Palma has tried and failed to work outside of his established comfort zone of flashy, Hitchcockian erotic thrillers, he’s followed up said failure with a picture squarely within those confines — a “traditional” De Palma film in the style of Dressed to Kill or Sisters or Body Double. In 1990, he laid a spectacular egg with his film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities; his next film was Raising Cain, with its memorable “De Mented, De Ranged, De Ceptive, De Palma” ad line. His snoozy 2000 sci-fi effort Mission to Mars was quickly followed by the silky, sexy, and silly Femme Fatale. Now, six years after his sledgehammer-subtle attempt at Iraq war commentary, the belligerent and flat-footed Redacted, we have a new De Palma picture in his signature style.

But is Passion any good? It’s hard to say. It’s certainly uneven, though not without virtues: it’s sleek and fun to look at, and De Palma is clearly having a great time writing the constantly shifting, clearly sexual power dynamic between ad agency CEO Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her creative director Isabelle (Noomi Rapace). The actors appear to be having as much fun playing it; McAdams is such a bright and sunny presence that she’s seldom had a role that showcased her considerable sensuality as well as this one, while Rapace intriguingly plays her more introverted character in bursts of helpless physicality.

The trouble is, De Palma’s representation of their world has the depth we’d expect from an unpromising creative writing student. They work in advertising, but the supposedly brilliant campaign over which the two women struggle for credit is utterly preposterous, and its poor quality doesn’t help further the ridiculous claim that, when it “goes viral” on YouTube, it garners ten million views over five hours in the middle of the night. It’s not just that the corporate culture at Passion’s center feels poorly researched. It’s so far removed from credibility that it’s literally laughable.

So there are two questions, really. Examined within one’s standard criteria of cinematic quality (what ever that may be), is Passion a “good” film? Not really — it teeters uneasily between intrigue and self-parody, and much of it is just plain silly. But, at this point in De Palma’s 40-plus year career, do questions and concerns like this even come into play? Or in that of Schrader, whose The Canyons confirms his skill with actors (we’ve never seen a better Lindsay Lohan performance) and lives of sleek privilege (as in his American Gigolo and The Walker), yet hampers him with a Bret Easton Ellis screenplay so tin-eared that it’s hard to imagine anyone — let alone the man who penned Taxi Driver and Blue Collar — looking at it and insisting, “Yep, gotta make this!”

It becomes a discussion of what exactly we’re looking for from these filmmakers at this point in their careers, where they’re lauded and idolized by film buffs, yet mostly ignored by mainstream moviegoers and shrugged off by Hollywood studio types. Are we seeing their films for engaging experiences, or to watch ‘70s legends trotting out their greatest hits? And if it’s the latter, do such customary formalities as situational believability, dialogue credibility, and proximity to “reality” come into play? Passion’s Christine and Isabelle, for all of McAdams and Rapace’s efforts, don’t sound much like human beings; they’re types, mash-ups of the icy blondes and femme fatales and bi-curious sexpots that have populated De Palma’s imagination for decades. When Isabelle gets hooked on sleeping pills, De Palma shoots the action as a hybrid of nightmare, reality, and fever dream, and busts out all the Dutch angles and noir lighting we can handle; that stuff’s not in the real world, so should we care if the board meetings sound like the dialogue scenes in a porn movie?

By the time he gets cooking with those those third-act flourishes, it’s easy to get sucked in to Passion, which tightens up and delivers the kind of bravado suspense filmmaking that De Palma is there to do — and that we’re there to see. But boy, what a slog it is to get there. Throughout his career, De Palma has been compared (and not always favorably) to his most clear and admitted influence, Alfred Hitchcock. But Passion forces the objective viewer to consider if, like Hitch, De Palma is at a point in his career where he can (or thinks he can) get away with things that other filmmakers can’t, because of who he is—and the accordant goodwill we bring to his work.

It was a dilemma that Hitchcock faced, and occasionally faltered in the face of (ever tried to sit through Topaz? Good heavens). But De Palma and Schrader — and, to a lesser extent, their “New Hollywood” compatriot Francis Ford Coppola — can only expect their names and filmographies to do so much of the heavy lifting here. Is it a shame that these cinematic legends have so much trouble getting financing these days (Passion was financed mostly via foreign entities, The Canyons via personal funds and Kickstarter)? Absolutely. But when these opportunities present themselves, these men have to do better than this. These films are stylish but inert, hitting the same beats and speaking to the same insular world view. Meanwhile, fellow ‘70s cinematic icon William Friedkin’s spent the past few years adapting Tracy Letts plays, finding a new voice and new energy from his rough-edged collaborator, and Woody Allen has explored fresh locales, styles, and methods of meshing comedy and drama to create three films (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine) that are not only excellent, but utterly unlike anything he’s made before. Filmmakers of De Palma and Schrader’s talent can reinvent themselves, even at this late date. They just have to be willing to try a little harder.