As soon as I heard the news about Brian DePalma’s legal problems in the making of his latest film Passion, I ran out to see it.
Nice butt, Miss Tragenhöschen!
And then there was the rest of the movie.
I didn’t know what to expect. I am a huge fan of DePalma’s Lurid Period of 1973-1984. DePalma made ten films over this eleven years, all but one having one thing in common: luridness. One is lurid/goofy (Phantom of the Paradise, early and nearer his Goofy Period) and one is lurid/conventional (Scarface, later and nearer his Conventional Period). The rest are lurid/lurid with each excellent in its own way. They almost all have one or more of his trademarked silent and/or slow-motion set pieces, always a highlight.
Since 1984 he has returned to lurid only intermittently: four films out of the fifteen he’s done in the past 30 years can be thought of as attempts to return to his lurid base. But truth be told, they haven’t done much for me. Most continued to have the kind of slow motion, ballet-like set-pieces that I found so riveting in The Fury. But they now too often seem obligatory.
So here’s the thing: Passion reminds me of a joke that made the rounds when I was a kid of maybe 10 or 12.
The joke concerned a worm named Motor who was good at boring through wood. He spent his day in the forest happily. He’d bore through this log and he’d bore through that log. In the hands of a good joke teller, usually older, this premise just set up a set of extended riffs about Motor’s time in the woods drilling and boring about in the logs. As such, the joke felt to us kids a bit more like a tall tale than a joke with a conventional punch line. The story-teller just took his good old time taking it here and there.
Eventually, the joke just went on too long. Far too long. OK, we would complain, we like the little feller well enough and we have had some good times following his doings, but where is this going? We were reassured it would all make sense at the end but just bear with the teller a bit more. And it went on and on some more. After a good long time, Motor disappeared into a giant log and seemed unable to find his way out. Was he lost? Did he die in there? Where did he go?
In time, there was a conclusion, but for the moment I can’t recall it and it doesn’t concern us. The story is relevant because it reminds me of how DePalma constructed Passion. The plot went on. And on. And on. There was no real life to the characters and no believability to the plot. Each character, each plot development felt like a device. Each a contrivance put in place by a plodding craftsman to one end and one end alone: his decision to end the movie with one of his trademarked set pieces done as a finale (they are often though not always in the middle).
Given that choice, there was no other choice but to see how many McGuffins he could get in the air at once (a scarf! a cell phone! a mask! a twin!) so that he could outdo himself with his grand new set piece. DePalma explicitly uses ballet as a backdrop theme for the movie, but the true animating spirit is juggling: how many balls and how will he keep them up there? And how will he end the act with a grand flourish?
And there it is: the last five minutes is a return to lurid excess, another set piece done without dialogue and ever so methodically.
(cue Pino Donaggio)
The gorgeous lesbian lovers; the discovery of by one (a murderess) of the other’s cell phone, a phone which contains evidence of murder and which has been readied to transmit the evidence to a policeman at the flick of the send button; the sexy/violent fight to control the phone; the graphic strangulation that slowly and painfully ensues; the policemen walking slowly upstairs to the apartment with a huge, colorful bouquet for the murderess who has fooled him into thinking she was innocent; the unanswered knock on the door as one of the lovers is quietly strangling the other inside; the slow departure of the policemen when there is no answer just as the next victim is breathing her last and kicking her foot in the vicinity of the phone on the floor, oh so close to the send button; his decision to walk downstairs, just missing the newly revealed twin sister of the earlier murder victim (or maybe not the twin?) emerging from an elevator heading toward the same apartment looking for revenge; the inadvertent pressing with big toe of the send button on the cell phone at the moment of what seems to be the strangled woman’s death; the sending of the incriminating evidence to the policeman’s phone as he is walking down the stairs; the policeman pausing on the stairwell looking at the evidence sent from the cell phone and realizing that the woman he thought was innocent is really guilty; his turning around to go back to the apartment . . . Now everything is in motion: the murder inside the apartment–is the victim actually dead for sure? The twin sister: which twin is she, and what will she do when she gets to the apartment? The detective: what we he find as he comes back up the stairs?
Hold on, I remember the punch line now. At the end of the joke, our little worm pushes his head out from a hole in the log and guess what?
OUT BORED MOTOR!!!!
Oh, and then there’s the actual conclusion to Passion–the silent set piece above is just the fake ending. The real one tagged on as a thirty second coda reminds me of the joke’s punch line, and it’s just as funny.