Brian De Palma’s Passion does not quite seem of its time. The once-popular erotic thriller, worked over to great effect by De Palma through the 80s and 90s, has long since faded into genre obsolescence, reemerging today only beneath a thick layer of irony and postmodern self-awareness, as in Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” and Danny Boyle’s “Trance”. As audiences are increasingly drawn to mock genre films weighed down by even a modicum of self-seriousness—and as those same audiences are quick to criticize films like “The Canyons” for appearing overtly artificial—there is little room left for the kinds of garish and exaggeratedly mannered features for which Brian De Palma was once best known. "Passion", like many of De Palma’s best films, seems both smart and thoroughly ridiculous, offering a slightly winking take on a genre built around mystery, sex and murder.
It has, of course, been quite divisive. Its proponents argue that it is a sly and even subversive critique of contemporary image culture, while its detractors find its excesses hard to take. I talked to Mr. De Palma by phone to try to suss out his motivations and thoughts behind the film’s style and sensibility—thoughts that might surprise you.
FILM.COM: I saw Passion for the first time at TIFF last year, and it seemed that people had a hard time understanding what they were supposed to take seriously and what was supposed to be funny. Do you want that to be ambiguous or is supposed to be pretty clear?
BRIAN DE PALMA: It’s clear to me. [Laughs]
It’s clearly funny to you?
I always have a kind of ironic sense of humor about the outrageousness of what these girls were doing to each other. That’s more or less throughout all of my movies, so I don’t know why it comes as a particular surprise to anybody.
Do you think that people who aren’t particularly familiar with your filmography might have a harder time understanding that what seems to be played straight is more tongue-in-cheek?
Well, if you want to see straightforward mysteries, you just have to turn on your television set. They’re playing 24 hours a day. You can listen to people being interviewed, talking to each other, investigating things. It goes on ad nauseum. I try to do something a little different. That’s why it may appear that it’s not what you’re used to seeing day in and day out.
And in what way do you think you signal that to people formally?
Well it seems pretty obvious here. Isabelle takes the pills, and suddenly the screen is blue, and kind of blinding. You go, “Oh, what’s going on here? This looks a little odd. The camera is slightly tilted and it seems like some kind of slightly surrealistic dream sequence.” It seems quite clear to me.
No, that’s clear to me too. I was thinking more of the earlier scenes. For example, there’s a moment in the film in which Isabelle is called in the middle of the night by her boss after she uploads a video from work to YouTube surreptitiously, and her boss tells her that the video has been seen 10 million times in five hours. That’s clearly a joke, because obviously there’s no way a video is going to be seen 10 million times in five hours.
I took that statistic right off the web.
...that a video was seen ten million times in five hours?
...okay. That seems really improbable to me. And, I mean, that line gets a laugh—people think it seems absurd.
Well, that speaks to an audience being very observant of the rates at which YouTube videos are seen. I would hardly be one who would know that. I just took that statistic from a piece of information on the internet. I think it’s a correct statistic. It’s not meant as a joke.
Okay. Well, were you at the screening in Toronto? Have you seen in with an audience?
When I saw it there was a lot of laughter. And not necessarily at the film, but with the film, because I think it’s sort of a fun genre film that seems a little more playful than most films of that kind. You’re not parodying the genre, necessarily, but it does seem a little arch and a little silly. If you’re watching it with an audience and they’re laughing, do you feel like it they’re not taking it seriously when they should be taking it seriously?
It’s a murder mystery! These are women outrageously destroying each other! And sometimes I find it quite amusing.
So do I. But murder mysteries usually seem more self-serious. I don’t think this film seems to be taking itself so seriously, and I don’t think people will watch “Passion” in the same way they might watch an ordinary murder mystery.
I’ve been making movies my whole life with this kind of ironic stance, in which sometimes the characters are doing things so seemingly excessive, but you can be amused by it. It’s nothing new to me. If you want to see straightforward murder mysteries, turn on your television set! They’re very drab as far as I’m concerned. I’m always pushing the envelope. Some people find that difficult to take, and maybe they laugh at it, but that’s I guess the risk you take.
Okay. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the blood in the murder scene is digital, right? Why?
Because then you don’t have to put one of those plastic things on their neck, which always makes a big mess. And it usually doesn’t work the first time, so you have to send everybody to the shower and then it takes three hours to put the prosthetic back on her neck and try to get the guy to pump the blood faster. Soon enough you’re on to take three and already you’re a day behind schedule.
A lot of people will be watching “Passion” at home, on VOD, rather than a the theatre. How do you feel about that?
I have no idea. A lot of people watch movies at home, on their laptops and television sets. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. I’m composing for a big screen and I always have, but some people will watch the movie on an iPad.
Do you think there’s something lost watching the film on an iPad?
Absolutely. Have you ever watched “Lawrence of Arabia” on an iPad? Try it some time. It’s not gonna make much sense.
It seems that over the last decade or so, the erotic thriller has kind of faded away. Why do you think people aren’t making movies like this anymore?
Because they’re on cable—erotic, naked women are on cable. You can’t do the things they do on cable in the cinema. You can’t do things that graphic. You think you can compete with pornography on the internet or nudity on cable? The way it’s across the internet now, come on. Buying pornography or going to a movie theater in the sixties or seventies is nothing like it is now, when one click of your mouse will take you to the most explicit pornography imaginable.
Why do you think that thrillers like this are more interested in female sexuality and in eroticizing the female form than in males?
Men have been undressing women in various art forms since the beginning of visual art. You could make this film with two men, but, I mean, all you have to do is look on your television screen or go Googling or pick up a magazine, and what do you see? Women, dressed or undressed. That’s what people are interested in.
If we’re so saturated in that then why are you interested in offering more of the same?
It’s a reality. It isn’t like we’re interested, it’s just how it is. They draw the eye. That’s why they’re there.
Sorry, can you elaborate on that?
People have been looking at beautiful women since the beginning of time.
And so you feel like just because they’ve been doing that since the beginning of time that makes it inherently interesting?
When was the last time you looked at a woman?
Recently, I imagine.
Good. Then you’re like a normal individual to me. I have a rather attractive one right across the table.
"Passion" is now available on iTunes and VOD. It opens in theaters on Friday.