At the film's outset, Christine (McAdams) and her immediate subordinate Isabelle (Rapace) are brainstorming for a smartphone ad campaign while taking shots of exotic liquors in Christine's baroquely furnished Berlin apartment. When a gentleman caller intrudes, Isabelle ducks out and comes up with an idea on her own that night. It's a hit.
Christine later takes credit for the ad and is offered a coveted promotion in New York. Isabelle doesn't understand why she's been betrayed. But after the bosses aim to dilute the ad, a frustrated Isabelle uploads the original version on YouTube and her stubbornness is rewarded: Now it's Isabelle who may get the New York promotion.
Thus begins a methodical game of revenge and one-upmanship with a gruesome final act, filmed in what De Palma loyalists might recognize as a trademark sequence (split screens, orchestral accompaniments, props, close-ups, the whole shebang).
Passion is in fact a remake of a 2010 French film that starred Kristin Scott Thomas in the McAdams role. De Palma evidently wanted his leading ladies to be closer in age (McAdams and Rapace are only a year apart), but the power dynamic is somewhat compromised here. It's much more Mean Girls than Devil Wears Prada, if you catch my drift. And you get the feeling that Rapace, who always manages to outact her screen partners, would have thrived with an older and more naturally executive nemesis.
To make matters much harder to evaluate, something about the production seems awfully thin here, almost TV-crime-drama-ish. You go back and forth between thinking the cinematography and choreography look incredibly intentional — shadowy and cold and smattered with Lynchian angles — and thinking that it just looks sort of cheap, like something made by a precocious college kid in the '80s who recently finished a unit on "suspense via camera work" and wanted to try his hand.
There is some expert suspense here, make no mistake, and the climactic sequence is elegant and mesmerizing. But it's plunked into the film after a dreary hour and 15 minutes of generic or downright silly corporate scene work — lesbian overtones and sexual harassment threats, what? — in which you're always aware that these are actresses doing their best impressions of advertisers.
The climax is followed by a prompt tonal departure, into the cerebral realms of "is-it-a-dream-or-isn't-it" occasioned by prescription drugs and remorse. And the wacky storytelling decisions of the final 20 minutes unfortunately land in "too little too late" territory.