I’m currently sitting in a café during a rain storm sipping cheap white wine and wearing a black and white polk-a-dotted dress. My blonde hair is a hot mess, my makeup is probably smudged and I’m sure I look tired and maybe even a little tipsy. In my head, however, I’m drinking a fine chardonnay and wearing a black Chanel dress with a matching hat, sunglasses and perfect pink lipstick. I think I look elegant, poised and intelligent. I can wear striking black stilettos for hours on end without falling over and know how to command attention when I enter a room as well as make the best conversation at parties.
None of this is true, of course, but these are the silly ideas of femininity and make-believe that have entertained my imagination since I was a wee lass and pretended to drink cranberry juice as if it were red wine. Playing dress-up is an important female rite of passage, one that is often difficult to shake upon entering adulthood. Particularly so now that young people have two or more identities to juggle - the real world and the world of social media. In Brian De Palma’s latest film, Passion, the leading ladies (Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams) turn this game into an art form. They might work in the same office, but each woman exists inside her own marvelous little universe of ambition, style and, finally, self-destruction. If all the world’s really a stage, then Passion’s jagged three acts are punctuated by the three C’s of: Costume, Cruelty and (Mis)Communication.
Christine (McAdams) is the head of an advertising firm that is trying to come up with a clever idea to market a smartphone. Isabel (Rapace) is both her protégée and rival. After Isabel creates a brilliant smartphone ad campaign (Hello, asscam) and has an affair with Christine’s fiancé, Dirk (Paul Anderson ), Christine sets out to destroy Isabel’s personal and professional lives and finds herself at the bottom of a stairwell with her throat sliced open halfway through the movie. Isabel is blamed for the crime but gets off clean after Dirk is discovered with Christine’s bloody scarf in his car and the fuzz find out Christine was going to turn him in for embezzling five million euros from the company. But did Dirk really do it?
This movie is really about the clothes. Clothing, the most important part of anyone's appearance, can be precisely tuned to project much in the same way a Facebook page or an Instagram feed can. Women in particular know the power clothing can have over the imaginations of their peers. In essence, Passion is a costume drama disguised as a flick about female competition and crime solving. Like any fierce cinematic bitch with a large bank account, Christine is dressed to the nine’s in designer duds and fancy make-up. She favors bold colors, sexy necklines and the most crimson and fuchsia of lipsticks. Isabel, on the other hand, is almost completely void of color and sex appeal. She wears boxy black collared shirts paired with loose slacks, blunt, Edith Head-esque bangs and a thin swish of brown eyeliner.
Christine’s attire matches her persona perfectly – she oozes confidence, easy charm and store bought charisma. The clothes she wears are as beautiful as she is, but something’s not quite right with the whole package. Like a vulnerable little girl little girl playing dress-up to escape her abusive parents, Christine wears just a tad too much make-up, colors her hair a shade too blonde and her silky clothes just aren’t the right color or shape for her body. She’s a cheap imitation of a powerful career woman as well as an imitation of past De Palma heroines. Utilizing almost exact replicas of costumes worn by Margot Kidder in Sisters (large black hat and black circular sunglasses) and Scarlett Johansson in The Black Dahlia (‘40s style turquoise slacks and sweater), Christine treads upon the familiar territory of feminine identity in De Palma’s filmography. In those two movies, the question of individuality and the battle for uniqueness are at the center of these character’s stories – the conjoined “twins” in Sisters fought for separate lives yet Danielle stills feels responsible for Dominique’s misdeeds and Johansson’s boring Kay struggles to be noticed by both of her police beaus after a dead girl and her lookalike steal the limelight.
Isabel by contrast, is meek and mousy in demeanor and appearance. She is the true puppet master of the duo. With an alarmingly sincere and affected way of carrying herself, she weaves her way into and out of Christine's strange power plays with none of the reservations or lack of conviction that eventually sink Christine and her schemes... Maybe. Or maybe not. What we're left to sift through in the end is enough for a whole other essay. Perhaps the most important question lies with Isabel - When did her dual identity begin? Was it present all along? Was it constructed just to compete with Christine? To the film's credit, these questions are never answered.
Christine and Isabel brawl for leadership and distinctiveness by using their costumes like boxing gloves. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Christine gives Isabel a chic periwinkle scarf to liven up her wardrobe. She wears it occasionally and, as I mentioned earlier, it becomes a key piece of evidence in the murder mystery. As the more obvious of the two, Christine is trying to bring Isabel down by modeling her in her image – in one scene she dresses Isabel in whore-red high heels and lipstick for a networking event knowing full-well that it would embarrass her. She also frequently kisses Isabel in an attempt to dominate her completely. Even Christine’s lipstick is venomous. It’s fascinating to watch these two characters interact with one another on screen because they move through space so differently. Isabel is seemingly the wallflower who envies Christine for her confidence and secretly wants to be her. Christine envies Isabel for her brilliance and overcompensates by being the biggest bitch possible.
Cruelty and (Mis)Communication
There are few sadder images in the history of American cinema than the one of Carrie White covered in pig’s blood at her senior prom. Like Lillian Gish running from her humiliation in Way Down East or a tarnished, destitute Barbara Stanwyck watching her daughter get married in Stella Dallas, Carrie White’s tragedy is the ultimate act of cruelty for the lonely teenage girl. Similar elements of viciousness have played a part in De Palma’s filmography – think of Angie Dickinson discovering she probably has an STD after having the best sex of her life in Dressed to Kill, Rebecca Romijn failing to stop her lookalike from playing Russian roulette in Femme Fatale and the long, drawn-out rape scene in Redacted.
Passion is no different. Besides possibly hinting at the films very own dual identity, what at first appears to be a fun, catty back and forth between Christine and Isabel frequently turns into blatant abuse, almost like a contemporary version of Nancy Allen’s merciless treatment of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. In that movie and at that time, the worst possible thing you could do to a teenage girl was to demean her in public, in front of all her peers and the boy she likes. This remains true of course, but now the humiliation can be two-fold, attacking not only the physical presence (or pretense as De Palma has suggested) but also the virtual. The effect can be devastating, causing the victim to retreat further into a wholly virtual and completely invented identity. All the while his or her real-world identity suffers further from social awkwardness and other maladjustments. Imagine if the prom in Carrie had taken place at a modern high school where almost every student had access to some sort of smartphone. That would have been humiliation – and infamy -- on a global scale.
As women who work in the advertising industry, both Christine and Isabel live for the thrill of social media acceptance and technological ingenuity. Their livelihood depends on their ability to create faces for different companies and brands and they themselves have adapted to that methodology as well. From the very first shot of Christine and Isabel sitting in front of the cold metallic screen of a Mac Book and the many computer monitor reflections and Skype video chats that follow, it’s clear that the presentation of image, realistic or not, is the most important element of the character’s lives.
This air of virtual reality lends the film an odd sense of miscommunication because it’s almost as if each character is living inside her very own Facebook profile or twitter account. Like dress-up for grown-ups. Resembling the two other movies released this year that comment on the high school and college era’s use of social media, Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring, Passion examines how this capability has affected adult participants. Rather than take selfies of themselves smoking crack or wearing Paris Hilton’s high heels, the women in Passion remove their personalities from the equation to present their own version of the ideal contemporary career woman. They’re simply cipher cunts hiding behind the safe-guarded guise of technology, even when they appear to be talking face to face.
The film shares this element of miscommunication on a visual level as well. It’s bifurcated into two almost perfect aesthetic halves. The first deals primarily with light and open spaces like Christine’s house and the friendly faces found on Isabel's ass cam. The sunny views of the office windows compliment the bright metal screens of the Mac computers and iPhones. At almost precisely the halfway point, three scenes happen back-to-back-to-back that shift the visual tone completely. Isabel has dinner with Dirk in London and takes a photo together with Dirk’s phone, they have sex and record it with the iPhone and, finally, Isabel and Christine’s boss appears on Skype video chat to congratulate their ass cam ad success. These three different “smart” mediums – iPhone photos, video and Skype – give Christine the necessary ammunition to annihilate Isabel.
After these scenes, the visuals quickly transition to familiar De Palma territory in the form of dark, moody imagery, tracking shots and dramatic lighting. The same “smart” pattern is also followed, but this time it has nastier intentions– Isabel answers a call from Dirk on Skype only to realize Christine is the one placing the call and shows Isabel the iPhone sex video recording. This is quickly followed with Christine showing video footage of Isabel crashing her car and crying her eyes out in the parking lot to all of her co-workers at a company party. In the 37 years since Carrie was doused in blood, the nature of cruelty has changed only slightly. It's not enough for us to inhibit the physical confidence of our victims, but we also have to inhibit their imaginations, their virtual worlds as well. In Passion there is no escape. The toys change every day, but the games children play stay the same.