erotic thriller

Potential Double Feature #3: Love Crime (2011) & Passion (2013)


Originally posted September 12th on Vérité as part of their Double Feature column: http://www.veritefilmmag.com/double-feature-2-love-crime-2012-passion-2013/

Film still from Love Crime

In an industry overflowing with repackaged sacred cows, Brian De Palma’s latest film Passion, from Alain Corneau’s final film Love Crime, is that rare remake that doesn’t exist solely to make buckets of cash off brand recognition. An artistic re-imagining where the filmmaker is the brand, Passion makes us wonder why directors insist on reinterpreting acclaimed masterworks, instead of taking a crack at films with the potential for improvement? Looking at the two films comparatively, it comes as no surprise that the cannibalistic De Palma would renovate the brass tacks of Love Crime into a smorgasbord of baroque self-referencing.

In 2010’s Love Crime, Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier) is an up-and-coming executive with a borderline obsessive bent. She assists the ruthlessly cold Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas), who plays mentor and friend to Isabelle as a means to an end. The two become locked in competitive mind-games and manipulation, and after one humiliation too many, Isabelle sets out to execute an elaborately perfect crime.

Passion largely follows the same pattern, replicating an in-sync scene-for-scene and line-for-line structure in its first half, but immediate differences belie the entirely lifted duplications. Where Love Crime takes place within an agro-industry, Passion spices things up by being set in the materialistic dog-eat-dog advertising world. The first shot features the Apple logo as Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) and Christine (Rachel McAdams) brainstorm for an upcoming deadline. De Palma places his characters within a webbed bubble of all-seeing modern technology, dispelling the notion of privacy. The voyeuristic camera has crossed over into the hands and power of everyone. Skype, iPhones, security cameras, etc. all play a major role, and lend a newly added focus.

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Rachel McAdams as Christine is jarring at first, considerably shifting the nature of the central dynamic. Love Crime’s Isabelle looks up to the considerably older Christine as a mentor. Their bond is one of maternal eroticism, Isabelle desperately clinging onto the hopeful approval of a parental figure whose doting ways can turn into abuse in seconds flat. Coworkers briefly mention that Christine’s last assistant resides in a mental hospital. Isabelle is just one in a long line of young disposable fodder for the succubus sitting comfortably at the top of the executive chain.

McAdams’ Christine is secure in her capabilities, but doesn’t comfortably sit at the top of the pack and there is a wavering tenuousness to her position. Isabelle feels like more of an immediate threat. Everybody is replaceable and it cuts both ways. The even playing field turns maternal longing into a quest for possession where eroticism doesn’t feel genuine but is simply another tool at hand.

Noomi Rapace heavily clouds our perception of Isabelle. With Ludivine Sagnier, we understand and readily empathize with Isabelle; she makes a connection with the audience even when we don’t know the reasoning behind her actions. Rapace is unreadable and distant, a trait with which the actor often struggles. It oddly works here though, if only because of the ambiguous direction De Palma takes the story.

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Brian De Palma is known as a stylist of outlandish proportions, a painter of Grand Guignol canvases with fluid camera movement. Love Crime is dressed down by Corneau with efficient shots, muted colors, and sparse music. Passion is all florid artificiality, from McAdams’ fashionista wardrobe of pop colors to the expressionistic lighting and increasingly canted angles. He transforms a simple alibi-establishing scene in Love Crime into a trademark split-screen set-piece of ballet intertwined with murder.

In Love Crime, we are immediately and explicitly let in on the fact that Isabelle murdered Christine. The question is never what has happened but how it has happened. We see her painstakingly setting the pieces in place without context. After the murder, we spend the final fifty minutes dissecting how she gets away with it. The piece-by-piece puzzle-building starts intriguingly but loses steam to a host of self-satisfied narrative pay-offs.

De Palma simplifies the incriminating details, pouring energy into subliminal rabbit holes, letting his freak flag fly. Narratively the audience is kept out of the loop, additionally manipulated by playful fake-outs depicting Isabelle’s warped perspective and frayed sanity. The techie focus is tied into the overall fabric, overtly questioning our trust in everything we see in a time when transparency is a weakness. It makes Passion feel effectively pristine and hollow. The focus is not on the ‘how’ but on the ‘what’. What is happening? What has happened? De Palma even throws in a questionable twin sister for good measure. While Kristin Scott Thomas’ absence is felt, the lingering doppelganger makes it feel like McAdams is lurking behind a corner waiting to pounce.

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For a film titled Passion, Isabelle and Christine feel robotically stilted and out-of-reach. These women are borne out of the playful masculine mind. The surface of eroticism focuses on material things, and the glossy gives way to the supposedly unknowable minds of women. De Palma fetishizes them, erasing any individuality they held claim to in Love Crime. They become beautiful trussed-up dolls playing at corporate slaughter for the filmmaker’s amusement. Notably, De Palma changes Isabelle’s confidant Daniel into a woman named Dani, becoming the third part of a female trifecta, though  he also gives his women more control and independence, making a pawn out of Christine’s boyfriend Phillipe. He is a cause of Isabelle’s emotional turmoil, not the source.

In Corneau’s film, Isabelle’s affair with Phillipe is her true weakness, something Christine capitalizes on with relish. In a revealing conversation with her sister, not present in Passion, it is clear that Isabelle’s vulnerability is centered on her emotional investment in another man. In Passion, Isabelle’s reactions feel more connected to Christine specifically, with Phillipe merely a part of the whole.

Love Crime is single-mindedly serious in tone, with a clinical approach to its second half. What Passion lacks in genuine emotion or characterization is largely made up for with bawdy sensibility in every grandiose gesture. There’s a satirical edge to the portrayal of corporatism, and De Palma’s stamp creates an amorphous  tone. It’s a wildly uneven film; slippery to grasp, deliriously hollow yet potent. Love Crime is a satisfying thriller that eventually gets too caught up with the narrative tricks up its sleeve. Corneau wants to make sure you see how everything fits. De Palma wants to gleefully revel in an unaccountable head-space. The constant push-pull in the creative decisions of Passion makes it a far messier film than Love Crime, which in this case makes for a more stimulating experience.


Film Review: The Housemaid (Im, 2011)


Im Sang-soo’s remake of the essential 1960 Korean classic The Housemaid is one of the more highly anticipated films to come from South Korea in recent years. For many decades, Korean cinema had been weighed down with the trauma of division, the government’s control of the film industry and the extreme censorship laws, virtually invalidating film as a mode of free expression. That Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid made it through was a stroke of luck due to a transitional change of regime. This very simplified context should make it clear why hype surrounded how the New Korean Cinema was going to interpret a rare and iconic example of pre-1990’s Korean film. The “remake” can barely be called that; it is more of a re-imagining. The decision to start from scratch and only use the basic premise (family hires a housemaid; disaster ensues) is inspired. Unfortunately Im Sang-soo’s take on the story is only intermittently successful and is ultimately undone by its simplistic and monotonous depiction of the elite.

A commentary on the emerging middle class, Kim’s 1960 film was a morality tale with a literal wink in its eye. The basic plot was this: a middle class couple hires a woman to become their housemaid in the midst of fixing up their dream house and raising their two children. The woman turns out to be a disturbed individual who sets out to seduce the husband and destroy their family in any way she can. Im Sang-soo (who also wrote the “remake”), discards all of this. It goes without saying that South Korea has changed since 1960; interpreting the premise to make it relevant to their modern day socioeconomic environment was, in theory, the right way to go with this material.

The new synopsis is as follows: Eun-yi (Secret Sunshine’s Jeon Do-yeon) is hired by a very wealthy family as a housemaid for the very young and very pregnant Hae-Ra (Seo Woo) and her husband Joon (Lee Jung-jae). They already have one child named Nami. Eun-yi is awkward, wide-eyed and overwhelmed by the undertaking her job entails. She is hired by “Miss Cho” (Yoon Yeo-jeong), the other housemaid who has been there for decades. One night Hoon seduces Eun-yi, who hesitantly but willfully submits to his lure. “Miss Cho” discovers the pair’s dalliance and even realizes that Eun-yi is pregnant before anybody else (including Eun-yi!). “Miss Cho” tells Hae-ra’s mother (Park Ji-young), who then plots with Hae-ra to get rid of the housemaid whose pregnancy could potentially cause ruin to their family.

Im Sang-soo, not unknown to controversy with his previous films, decided to take on the elite with his latest. As the writer/director himself has stated, he wanted to address the established upper class that has emerged in South Korea, who are extremely wealthy and yield a considerable amount of power (from the director’s perspective). Eun-yi’s experience with the wealthy represents the circumstances and motivations behind the decisions the elite supposedly make. Everything that Hae-ra, Joon and Hae-ra’s mother do in the film is out of greed, jealousy or an effort to save face. It is certainly meant to be a scathing attack on the deluded morals of the privileged. Unfortunately, Im’s critique is greatly diluted by characters that are one-note caricatures. The Housemaid is filled with characters that fail to be interesting or engaging and whose one-note selfishness comes off makes them seem like the stock villains of a soap opera. Hae-ra repeatedly cries offense from being cheated on with “the woman who washes my underwear”. Joon never gets enough screen time to marinate with the audience and is mostly present in sex scenes. The character of Hae-ra’s mother is the hardest to take seriously. From her wardrobe to the performance, it all comes off as hammy and hard to take seriously. In addition to all of this, Eun-yi is not all that absorbing; we feel and care about her but not as much as we should. Jeon Do-yeon does manage to do a lot with the material and puts in a worthy performance. She makes her a victim who actively makes decisions that seem desirable at the time, but ultimately have tragic consequences. Still, a one-dimensional group of wealthy, villainous characters and a sympathetic but only mildly stimulating protagonist does not amount to much, making it difficult to take any deeper meaning about class from the film.

The Housemaid may fall short of its goals but is still entertaining and sexy to boot. There are several specific reasons that the film is worth seeing. The first is the production design by Han Ah Reum. A 2,300 square-foot set was created for the film, the largest in Korean film history. The effort pays off; the entire house is gorgeous with its sleek design elements and modern grandeur. The cinematography by Lee Hyung-deok ideally compliments the production design with its long shots that incorporate large segments of the space, depicting it as intimidating and shallow, but stunning nonetheless. The most important reason to see The Housemaid is the film’s one multi-dimensional character; “Miss Cho”. “Miss Cho” knows more than any other character in the film. She has an arc that begins with her betrayal of Eun-yi and her loyalty to Hae-ra’s mother. She is resentful but loyal to her employees and has hardened by existing through her service to them. “Miss Cho” changes by the film’s end and seeing her navigate through her changing role in the various situations she encounters is by far the most developed material the film has to offer.

Lastly, The Housemaid is book-ended with scenes that stand out from what takes place in between. The first is the suicide of a random woman in the area where Eun-yi works. It is notable because it foreshadows an event that happens later in the film, it acknowledges the very real suicide problem in South Korea and it starts the film off with a very different tone in relation to what comes after. The scene is shot hand-held and directly contradicts the glossy look of the film once we enter the world of the wealthy. The last scene is also very different in tone and is far and away the best scene in the film. Without giving it away, it captures a moment in such a bizarre way that evokes the very present denial of the people involved, and suggests the ability of one character to see through the transparency of the family’s desperate attempts to pretend that nothing has happened. Cryptic, I know. It is important though to give the scene some context without being spoiler ridden, as it is the highlight of the film.

Im Sang-soo made an inspired choice to reinterpret Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid for the present day. Starting from scratch allowed him to critique the upper class, and the abuses of power that come with the rich, through the eyes of one unfortunate housemaid. Unfortunately, the attack is flimsy and weakly executed. While it manages to be a fun erotic thriller, most of its characters fail to rise above basic characterization. The subversions and deranged qualities of the original are absent and would have been welcome under new contexts. The Housemaid is worth seeing as it makes for an entertaining and harmless experience but do not expect anything more than a decent film, for you might be disappointed.

6/10