Brian De Palma’s erotic thriller is unfortunately short of both eroticism and thrills

It’s only a half-insult to call Brian De Palma’s erotic thriller Passion — the English-language adaptation of the Kristin Scott Thomas-starring Crime d’amour — soulless. It’s a heartless feature certainly but that’s by design. For De Palma it’s meant to be a statement about the post-modern workplace. It’s a murder mystery-cum-police procedural occurring in a global advertising agency a locale that in Passion is painted as the birthplace of cool the nexus of creativity and a cutthroat social Darwinist experiment. Promising enough right?

But De Palma’s film despite a rock-solid performance by its lead Rachel McAdams never transcends its heartlessness. Passion’s flimsy plot malformed characters and reliance on predictable neo-noir conventions trips up its relentlessly slick and aesthetically gorgeous.

Passion centres on careerist ad exec Christine (McAdams) and her promising precocious underling Isabelle (Noomi Rapace). The two jostle to climb the advertising world’s ladder. Isabelle develops a brilliant marketing campaign but Christine takes credit for it. Isabelle leaks the campaign’s video online causing it to go viral — earning praise from higher-ups. The seesaw between both women naturally becomes fatal. More on that later.

Underscoring the corporate tug-of-war is Dirk (Paul Anderson) a GQ -dapper agency partner who is sleeping with both women. It’s through him that we’re exposed to the shockingly clichéd nuances of each character: Christine is a sex-loving sociopath with a penchant for Mardi Gras masks and blindfolds; Isabelle’s a fragile questionably bisexual bleeding heart. To most seasoned viewers — or at least those familiar with horror and suspense archetypes — it’s a combustible mix pitting a Norman Bates-type against a volatile enigma. (Which is where Isabelle comes in. Let’s not forget that repressed sexuality in conservative film can be viewed as threatening. See: High Tension .)

This dramatic tension would and perhaps should be captivating. The only problem? It’s hard to empathize with the film’s characters partially because the film’s patently predictable and partly because Christine and Isabelle’s characters aren’t given time to develop. To the first point: There’s an entire sequence in the film that’s bathed in window-shutter shadows an ancient film noir trope that can only mean one thing: Incrimination. It’s the easiest and oldest suspense-flick trick — heck even Animaniacs mocked it — and as a technique it’s a lazy way to foreshadow a character’s fate.

Secondly: Shit are these characters unlikable. Maybe it’s because I’m a subscriber to Bill Hicks’ school — “if anyone here is in advertising or marketing kill yourself” he once said “seriously” — but it’s hard to empathize with careerist marketers. McAdams who gleefully shirks her twee rep is especially hateable as Christine. At one point she fabricates a story about watching her twin sister die. She films co-workers messing up at work. And at Passion ’s most incredulous point a disembodied pair of hands places a bejeweled necklace around her neck.

Isabelle for her part never shows enough personality to be likable. It’s hard to understand why she’s complicit with this behaviour and how she fits into the ad-world’s power structures. De Palma surely meant for her motives to be mysterious; Isabelle feels underdeveloped.

Which brings us back to Hicks’ philosophy: It’s hard to feel compassion for cutthroat marketers working in the implicitly manipulative world of advertising especially when they’re as flimsy as Passion ’s duo. Without proper character building it’s impossible to understand — much less relate to — these characters. So when throats get slashed hearts get broken and careers get ruined a single thought arises: Feh.

Which is shameful as De Palma does an excellent job of creating an awe-inspiring hyper-stylized universe. The film takes place in anonymously European brutalist buildings replete with glass walls and 15-foot ceilings. Aesthetically Passion is a beautiful film but when they take Hicks’ advice — and its marketers go ahead and you know kill themselves — it’s hard to care.