The most significant pleasures one can derive from watching a Brian De Palma film: the convoluted plot and its twists, the camera eye, and partial female nudity.
Rachel McAdams is stunning in all of her outfits (including lingerie), so absorbing in her wide-eyed gaze, and inviting with her big smile. Not to mention, the large forehead, (a DePalma femme fatale staple?), and her sharp jaw line. There is something of the masculine in her features, that oozes command and intelligence. Her beauty is power, and she has displayed nothing but intelligence in her recent acting choices (Woody Allen, Terence Malick).
In this story of lust and revenge (there will be blood), two creatives in an advertising agency go tit for tat competing for success, pride, and recognition. DePalma’s modus operandi has always been that such narcissistic pursuits are nothing but games of mirrors and lead to the inevitable and regrettable outcomes of criminal prosecution, violent laceration, and death.
So we watch as our apprentice (played with adequate restraint by Noomi Rapace) is humiliated time and again by the most manipulative, experienced storyteller, Christine (Rachel McAdams), who takes credit for her ideas, and gathers praises that would otherwise belong to their true creator.
In what seems like a crack at the current proliferation of filmed media across the urban space, the advertising campaign in cause in the story is uploaded to a website to go viral. This is a successful strategy. To humiliate her rival and diminish her success, Christine (Rachel McAdams), uses surveillance camera footage of the company’s parking garage captured in a momentary state of complete desperation. Infuriated by the reductive way she’s been portrayed, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), strikes back at Christine with a role-playing illusion, equipped with mask and costume, and kills her. It seems like a quip to counter the cheap media (internet video, surveillance camera) that’s been representative of success so far.
De Palma seems to be saying there is an ongoing war of media formats which have taken our imagination hostage. To think of ourselves as being representable by these different formats is akin to dreaming various dreams and having various lives, and living out various desires, some of which aren’t even our own but the product of advertisements and dramatic fantasies generated by too much watching.
As a sort of antidote to this media schizophrenia, the middle segment of the film is a filmed dance performance of a ballet (Debussy’s “The Afternoon of a Faun”). This recalls the long forgotten other visual arts, non-projected, where human presence and movement is essential, unlike the vague shadows projected across a flat surface that we call CINEMA. This ballet is also Isabelle’s alibi to prove she did not commit the murder.
But she did commit the murder. There is even a tape. The second part of the film is a dream within a dream where every shot is potentially unreal. The entire sequence plays like a musical, with twists that reshuffle our assumptions of place, and motive. Not surprisingly, a similar kind of rivalry develops between Isabelle and her assistant, who like everyone else in this story is a slave to her lustful desires and would kill (or be killed) to attain them.
There are countless reasons to watch this. From the production design, to the beauty of the actresses, to the meditations on the ubiquity of filmed media and how it influences our capacity to imagine. The filmed ballet is also an elegant performance that is perfectly integrated in the narrative. But the secret has been out since a long time anyway, De Palma is one of our better living directors, who always maintains his integrity, while continuously rewarding the viewer.
Here’s to this complicity lasting!
Thank you for reading.