Thursday, August 15, 2013

Too Fast To Live, Too Old To Get Funding: Passion and The Canyons

Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams star in Brian De Palma's Passion

Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader are both survivors of the ‘70s “movie brat” era, both bold directors still intent on pushing the outside of the envelope even as they tiptoe toward or past their seventieth birthday, and both continue to have to dance and cajole and plead and scheme just for the chance to make another movie. De Palma’s latest, Passion, is a French-German co-production based on a movie from just three years ago, Alain Corneau’s Love Crime (Crime d'amour). This is the director’s first film since 2008’s furiously angry Iraq War screed, Redacted, whose best scenes updated the black-comedy absurdist slapstick of the Vietnam-era Greetings and Hi, Mom! to the time of George W. Bush. The only politics in Passion are of the office variety; it’s about the setbacks and humiliations that Isabelle, a marketing executive played by Noomi Rapace, suffers at the hands of her “mentor,” a bitch on wheels named Christine, played by a blond Rachel McAdams.

It’s about how the bad blood festering between these two, which seems to be further knotted by frustrated sexual urges, turns violent. Even sexual politics don’t enter much into the picture’s frame of reference: it doesn’t do much with the idea that woman like Christine might feel that she has to become something of a monster to compete in a man’s world, because there are scarcely any men in the movie. The biggest male roles are just there for the purposes of the plot: the sodden, useless boyfriend (Paul Anderson) who the two women pass back and forth, and a police detective who develops a blinding crush on a murder suspect. (He’s played by Rainer Bock, whose sagging, saturnine face suggests that he was not the right man for this assignment.)

director Brian De Palma on the set of Passion
Advance word on Passion, fostered by the title and the fact that it features girls doin’ it, and wanting to do it, with each other, has been that it’s an erotic thriller. Nope. The most sensual feeling in the movie is reserved for the technology and the toysthe hidden cameras that record everyone’s move and the cell phones and computers. (The move opens with an almost fetishistic pan over the Apple logo on someone’s laptop.) Many suspense filmmakers would probably like to wipe some of these things from the face of the earth, because they’ve made their lives more difficultmany a thriller these days has to set aside a moment to explain why the imperiled hero or heroine can’t get a signal, and so can’t just call the cops. De Palma has always gotten off on gadgetry, and when he looks at this stuff, all he sees are the possibilitiesas in Redacted, which took the found-footage genre about as far as it could go by telling its story through a mixture of home movie, fake French documentary, and video blog. In the climactic scene, a woman struggles to signal for help by trying to hit a cellphone with her bare foot. This image, too, is fetishistic, but it’s a toss-up whether it’s her foot or her phone that’s the central erotic object.

Passion is consistently entrancing to watch as an exercise in filmmaking. De Palma knows how to shoot business offices and the apartments of the successful and powerful so that they reek of luxury and money yet also seem elegantly pared down, with everything in place for the camera; even the character’s hairstyles seem chosen with a precision that’s part mathematics, part feng shui. It’s only intermittently involving, though, and it’s at its most riveting when De Palma steps away from the source material and stages one of his trademark set pieces, complete with split screen. The story itself feels at a remove, which may have something to do with the fact that it’s a remake of another director’s film, and something to do with the fact that the elements that are most De Palmaand most like a De Palma “erotic thriller”recall his 2003 fever dream, Femme Fatale. That movie felt like a kiss-off to the kind of material he’s returned to here, presumably because it’s what he could get funding for, as opposed to one of his real dream projects, like that epic adaptation of Alfred Bester’s classic science fiction novel The Demolished Man, which he’s been talking about in interviews for something like 45 years now.

Coming after the much-maligned Redacted, which for all its flaws felt as much like something De Palma had to make as the movies he was struggling to pull together on shoestring budgets when he was in his twenties, Passion feels like a way to keep busy, and maybe a calling card, a way for the old man to show he’s still got itideally, to somebody who might be tempted to give him the money to make a movie he really wants to make. In a summer as short on real thrills and movie pleasures as any in recent memory, it’s a better time-killer than most. As a fan who hates to think of what dreams America’s greatest under-appreciated living director might end up taking to the other side with him, I just worry about how much more time De Palma has to kill.

James Deen and Lindsay Lohan star in Paul Schrader's The Canyons

Paul Schrader never had the chance to play guerrilla filmmaker, putting on a low-budget show as a young director. A late bloomer, Schrader broke into movies as a screenwriter, won instant success with Taxi Driver (and De Palma’s Obsession), and then established himself as a writer-director whose specialty was draping mopey, alienated characters in Armani to the strains of Giorgio Moroder. (One of the funniest things about Schrader’s not-exactly-hilarious career is that the first movie he directed was a lament for the plight of the working man called Blue Collar. At the time, few guessed that Schrader was showing how hopeless the life of an honest laborer is so that no one would ever ask why he would never again pretend to be interested in one of them.)

The Canyons, which is Schrader’s follow-up to a string of movies that were barely released (Adam Resurrected, The Walker, and the Exorcist-prequel Dominion), marks his best stab at re-inventing himself as a twenty-first-century post-studio filmmaker. It cost $250,000 and stars an adult film star, James Deen, and a former mainstream star, Lindsay Lohan, whose tabloid travails have made her uninsurable, and therefore virtually unemployable, in the industry. But even working fast and cheap, Schrader tries to make the home of the lead charactersa trust fund cretin (Deen) who’s producing a slasher picture and the girlfriend (Lohan) he likes to film doing it with other guyslook as stupidly swank as possible, and the people are all blank hedonists. His supposed master stroke was teaming up with Bret Easton Ellis, who’s as washed-up as a novelist as Schrader is as a Hollywood director, but who’s supposed to be rocking the hell out of his Twitter site.

It’s good that Schrader is trying to get out of his own head and work with another writer, but the inside of Elllis’ head apparently looks a lot like Schrader’s, with one key difference. Schrader is a tortured, judgmental moralist who’s in the habit of convicting his own characters for his own sins; for twenty-eight years, Ellis’s shtick has been coughing up the trashiest, most lurid taboos he can think of, so that he can yawn at them. Ellis, in his ongoing quest to appoint himself the czar of post-hip hipness, writes cud-chewing op-eds explaining how Charlie Sheen’s ugly public mental breakdown of a couple of years ago is the apex of a new kind of “post-empire” performance art; Schrader, forever driven to find ways to give audiences a way to connect to his obsessions over his secret shameswhich would be more secret if he didn’t give so many interviewsonce devoted an entire movie to the life and lusts of Bob Crane. These two aren’t simpatico, except in the worst way: they never met a character they wouldn’t like better as a zombie. (The only suspense, which at best only rises to mild curiosity, and rises not out of the story or the characters but out of what we’ve come to expect from the storytellers, is over which of these people is going to turn American Psycho.) Schrader decided that well-dressed catatonia was the highest dramatic figure one could aspire to at his umpteenth Bresson-Antonioni double feature, while Ellis came to the same conclusion while watching a Duran Duran video directed by someone who’d once read about one of Schrader’s homages to Bresson while sitting in a dentist office. Their collaboration generates so little tension that you have to wonder if those influences are as far apart as they sound as if they should be.

Except for the black-and-white still images of ruined, abandoned movie theaters accompanying the opening credits, which certainly make a statement, the only pulse in The Canyons comes from Lindsay Lohan’s presence. She can’t quite give a performance, partly because of what she has to work with, and partly, no doubt, because she hasn’t had much opportunity to keep her chops in shape. But she has an aura, that of someone with unrealized potential who’s become scared and uncertain and faintly tragic. If not all of that is coming from the character but from Lohan herself, who can blame her? A few years ago, when Lohan first started making headlines for her substance abuse problems and other personal issues, there were a few expressions of genuine concern from anonymous sources, some of who were quoted as being afraid she was going to die. Now there are celebrity death polls all over the Internet, with Lohan ranked at the top, and the tone of these things isn’t concerned, but gleeful.

Lohan is a gifted young actress who has entertained millions and inspired love in her fans, and who seems to have gone off course and spent some time flying blind without reliable adult counsel. But there seem to be a lot of people who can’t see any difference between her and a smug, privileged vacant shell like Paris Hilton, and anyone who’s spent a few minutes reading comments at online gossip sites knows there are a lot of people who can’t tell the difference between Paris Hilton and Slobodan Milosevic. At a point where Robert Downey, Jr. has been so thoroughly forgiven his trespasses, it’s hard not to feel that the satisfaction that people take in Lohan’s fall from grace has less to do with her than with some mass schadenfreude at seeing a beautiful young woman brought low for not having spent her off hours in a nunnery. (Lohan used to be a child star. How many adults once secretly fantasized about her as their perfect daughter, only to see her mug shot online and think, “Jesus, she’s even more messed up than my kid!”) Drew Barrymore used to have some of the same problems, inspiring James Wolcott to write, more than twenty years ago, that she “proved once again that talent follows no correct slant… She can break curfew whenever she wants; the camera forgives her everything.” Barrymore got past it. Lohan may get past it, too, but from the look of things, she could use some help and understandingstarting with better jobs, and better collaborators.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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