Sunday, September 23, 2012

Some notes on Brian De Palma and his Love Crime remake, Passion

Brian De Palma is one of the most important filmmakers of my lifetime. Or, on my lifetime. One of my earliest memories is of watching his film adaptation of Stephen King's novel Carrie on HBO, with my  mother. This was back when HBO would show R-rated films only at night, and we didn't have a VCR, which at that time would have cost in the $1,000s. My mother wanted to watch the film, but she was afraid to watch it by herself, alone, at night. So I got to stay up well past my bedtime and watch it with her.

At that time, my mother had red frizzy hair, and kinda resembled Piper Laurie.

This was one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever endured. To this day, whenever I smell black cherry incense (which is actually more often than you might think), I go into conniptions.

A few years later, I watched De Palma's second collaboration with John Travolta, Blow Out, also on HBO. Damn, did De Palma know how to get your attention at the start of a movie or what? I remember thinking the ending was a little distasteful, maybe even hateful, but I was a reactionary little cuss back then. Re-watching it recently, I found a great deal of humor and humanity in it.

His remake or reboot or reimagining or whatever of Scarface, with Al Pacino, was one of the first movies I saw on video tape. (In our family, we weren't sure that home video wasn't going to just be a passing fad.) I was totally mesmerized. And appalled. What an excessive, bloated, violent, admirable, messy picture that was. It was one of the first films that I actually started to analyze on my own, without adult supervision or conversation. It was easy to see that De Palma, the same man who'd directed Blow Out and Carrie, would have put such a film together. They all shared a certain quality that I started calling "baroque," or "more is more."

I didn't have De Palma's sense of film history, not even close, so I didn't catch all or probably any of De Palma's references. I'd never heard of Blow Up, for instance. I knew that there was another, previous film called Scarface, but that was about it. Then, I saw his Dressed to Kill. Yeah, I had already seen Psycho, so I recognized the pastiche. Or, the celebration. The reference. The rip-off. I suppose there's a tension there. I don't generally feel it. Only once in a De Palma film have I ever thought his reference was a "rip off."

To me, De Palma's work is on the same continuum as Shakespeare, Sterne, Homer, Rimbaud, Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Plato, St Thomas Aquinas, Philip K Dick, Charles Willeford, Alfred Hitchcock, Stan Lee, etc. Great artists who borrowed the work of others to create their own unique works of art. So the fact that I now understood that De Palma was let's call it referencing other's works served to enrich my own experience of his work. It was one more thing to puzzle over. What was De Palma trying to establish with this borrowing of certain elements from Psycho? What did I miss from the other films of his that I'd seen?

I couldn't tell you how many times I watched Body Double. There was a movie with a hook, in particular for a snotty punk kid just entering puberty. In a way, I guess, I was helpless to resist De Palma; it was like he was growing up right along with me (again, at this time I'd only seen the five movies listed above. I doubt that, Sisters or Murder a la Mod were even available on video at that time; certainly not to a kid growing up in a small town in the midwest). For a brief period Body Double was my all-time favorite movie. It had everything: Sex, violence, twists, suspense. It was a perfect kid's movie.

I even loved Wise Guys. Another exercise in excess. Nobody made movies like De Palma. Even his comedies were violent and twisted and baroque.

The Untouchables was one of the most anticipated movies of my life. I couldn't wait to see that movie -- De Palma and David Mamet, for crying out loud, with gangsters on top of that. And that movie didn't disappoint. An elegantly constructed masterpiece, excessive in all the right ways, with genuinely powerful performances by everyone, in particular Kevin Costner, in those early days when he was really compelling (he's coming out of it now, but with a few exceptions, notably the great Tin Cup, he was just dull from roughly Field of Dreams to Dragonfly).

Around the time I saw Raising Cain, I was getting pretty seriously interested in horror movies, in particular Dario Argento's work. I loved Raising Cain, with John Lithgow's portrayal of a square's idea of a bully villain. The movie was a comedy as funny as Wise Guys, and even more excessive. And I was really jolted by the final shot of the movie. Then, about a month or two later, I happened to watch Argento's Tenebrae, released ten years earlier than Cain.

Same final shot. Exactly the freaking same.

The baby carriage on the steps scene in The Untouchables was an homage. The shower scene in Dressed to Kill was an homage. The images of the car crash in Blow Out was an homage. But that last scene in Raising Cain was a rip-off. So decided me, anyway.

De Palma is an artist. An eccentric, excessive, eclectic artist who doesn't always transcend his influences (which includes himself, by the way-- see Casualties of War and Redacted, for instance). His work might be frustrating at times, maybe disappointing, but he's never boring. So whenever I hear that he has a new film coming out, I always check it out. He is one of the most important filmmakers of my lifetime, after all.

A couple of weeks ago, the LA Times published an article about his latest effort, a film called Passion, which debuted at The Venice Film Festival.
The movie is a remake of Alain Corneau's 2010 French thriller "Love Crime," which starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier as a seasoned executive and an up-and-comer locked into a dynamic of flirtation and manipulation that turns deadly.
When I was a kid, HBO would only show R-rated films at night. I didn't have a VCR, and even after we got a VCR, there was one video rental store. Today, I have Netflix streaming, and as soon as I read this article, I checked -- yes, Love Crime is streaming. I watched it the night I read the article. Immediate gratification.

In such a world, are remakes even necessary? At the Thrill Fiction blog, AJaye explains the artistic rationale for remakes:
[M]ovies, like hair and fashion, tend to date. Good movies that date due to dialogue, acting style, special effects, social attitudes et cetera can be revamped and remade (eg Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978).
Love Crime is a dumb movie. Much of the action of the first half of the film takes place in the offices of a large corporation where everyone speaks in vague corporatese that the actors might have picked up from watching a few episodes of The Office. The first act relies on one of the characters coming up with an amazing and unique idea that is banal: using local consultants on a new product launch! Who knows the locals better than other locals, after all? This is the big idea that sets the whole plot in motion.

The second half of the film is so improbable that there is no tension whatsoever. It doesn't help that the scenes are composed in a listless way that actually mimics a lifeless corporate report, as opposed to a suspense film.

Another big problem is that the two main characters are cyphers. The actresses, in particular the great Kristin Scott-Thomas as the older executive, give them a lot more interest and care than the screenwriters and director. She can say more with a glance than an entire paragraph of dialogue (especially in this film), and the scene in which she and Ludivine Sagnier are riding in her car on their way to a party is a lot more moving and powerful than it deserves.

It was made in 2010, but already feels dated. It was made in France, so the social attitudes are different from those of Americans. But should it be remade?

I'm looking forward to seeing it for two reasons: One, I just enjoy watching De Palma's work. Two, for crying out loud yes if there was ever a film that deserved to be remade, this is it.

There is definitely a kernel of greatness in the plot of the film. The early scenes of corporate intrigue could be really interesting, and inform the characters' motivations (in particular the Sagnier character) in the second half of the film, if only the script had some knowledge of how corporate employees actually interact. There are individual scenes that stand out, in particular the scene in which Scott-Thomas's character plays a video of "corporate employee bloopers" at a corporate get-together. So much sinister control and vicious black humor on display in that one amazing scene, the best scene in the entire film.

Love Crime feels like a rough draft. Perhaps it was; sadly, the director of the film, Alain Corneau, was battling cancer during production, and died before the film's release. The final product might not have been what was originally intended. In general terms, it seems as though De Palma gets that. Back to the LA Times:
"I saw there were many good things about it, and I saw there were many things I thought I could improve," said De Palma, on the phone from Paris, where he has lived on and off in recent years in addition to New York, of his impression upon seeing "Love Crime" for the first time. "I think it's very difficult to, let's say, remake a classic. This had things that could be made better when you remade it."
There is tension in De Palma's work, often independent of the story: Will this be a great De Palma film, like Body Double, or a bizarre mistake, like Snake Eyes? Did De Palma choose material that suits him, like The Untouchables, or did he choose material that is so far removed from anything he should even be thinking of doing that you have to wonder if someone didn't hit him in the head several times before sending him the script, like The Bonfire of the Vanities?

Whatever the case, I'm excited to find out.

Piper Laurie image source.
Dressed to Kill image source.
Tenebrae image source.
Love Crime image source.
Rachel McAdams Passion image source.


Thrill Fiction said...

Kristen Scott Thomas is revered in Blighty (as if you didn't know). She does not have the household appeal of an Emma Thompson or the celebrity of a Kate Winslet but the media gush and the public respect. Thomas is as English as a rose in a royal garden.

She is also an anomaly; she is an indigenous exotic. It is one thing for an English actor to perform in an American movie as an American, it is another for an English actor to perform in French films as a Frenchwoman. Only Charlotte Gainsbourg shares her stage. Indeed a film starring either lady could be in either language. How convincing Thomas' native French accent is is a question for the French and the Francophiles to answer.

So are you convinced or what?

'Love Crime' promised plenty but delivered less than. Your succinct review sharpens its fraudulent intentions. In the 90s this would be a straight-to-video 'erotic thriller'. In 2012 it is remade with a banner director but this years American film 'Compliance' is already the better picture. I suppose 'Passion' will be a pretend neo-noir.

I don't have any affection for De Palma. His work in the 70s and 80s was sterling but his career crashed in the 90s. (From the director of 'Blow Out' 'Mission: Impossible' is a fall from grace to a will-work-for-food status.) The beginning of his end - 'Raising Cain' - I found to be ridiculous and obnoxious. His trajectory can be likened to John Carpenter's however I have adoration for Carpenter. Apart from critics and intellectuals one wonders if De Palma has a similar popular base. To wit Depeche Mode have a following. Spandau Ballet are fondly remembered.

I'll watch 'Passion' because of this article but I wont blog about it. I'll leave that to you. The fact that De Palma recognizes the shortcomings of the original does not guarantee an improved script. For such an occurrence he should have hired an American with French sympathies.

I know of someone.

And with all due respect to the too young Noomi Rapace he should have hired Kristen Scott Thomas as the second lead.

Ricky Sprague said...

My suspicion is that De Palma's appeal is mainly to film buffs and historians, in particular his work up through maybe The Untouchables. Reading Pauline Kael's essays and criticisms from the 70s and 80s, I was struck by how much she really, really loved his movies. All of them.

I take your point about Raising Cain. When I saw it, pre-Tenebrae, I thought it was a decent comedy, an attempt to do something sort of like his earliest stuff, a la Hi Mom!, a sort of engineered cult movie. But I don't think it's aged well.

The first I saw Kristen Scott-Thomas was in Four Weddings and Funeral, which was a big hit here. You won't go poor peddling phony sentiment, but even in that film I recognized her talent. She rose way above the material (I actually had an argument with my then-girlfriend about that film-- I was a lot more resistant to its "charms" than she was). The same with the next big movie I remember seeing her in, The Horse Whisperer. (I missed The English Patient and I hadn't yet seen Angels and Insects). You could tell, again despite the material, that she is one of the greats. Now, when I see her name on a movie I watch.

IMDb reminds me that she was actually in De Palma's Mission: Impossible movie. So he's at least worked with her. Too bad he didn't think to work with her again.

Thrill Fiction said...

Now that you mention it she was in all the tv promoted clips in the beginning with Tom snuggling up to her to mislead the bad guys. Reminds me of the fact Cruise was once married to Mimi Rogers. And so I segue to the older woman dynamic and why Thomas would have been a better second lead/villian in Passion. It is about seual harassment and dominance after all. Or maybe this remake is firmly mainstream.

I like pointing fingers at the 'movie brats'. For all their angry young man bluster they were film school educated middle class welcomed into the industry. Now they're all old men chasing Oscars and blockbusters. The same can't be said about Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, John Sayles, Ken Loach, Jonathon Demme et cetera.

It's not a job; it's a legacy.