The Psycho-Economics of Sex
Brian De Palma’s film Passion is yet another De Palma exploration of the psycho-economics of sex as it plays out in the artifice of cinema. It features two female marketing executives (Rachel McAdams as Christine Stanford and Noomi Rapace as Isabelle James) who manipulate, plot against and turn on each other so rapidly and with so many nuances in their cat-on-cat clawing for power that I’m surprised fur doesn’t fly off the screen.
In this psycho-economic post-feminist thriller, everything is synthetic – the environment and the women who fight for power within it. De Palma places the women within the global economic market and sets them loose on each other in a ferociously entertaining thriller. Nothing about these women can be trusted – their identities, their motives, their actions. It’s ironic that the film is called Passion because it is really devoid of human passion. The passion that drives this film is passion for economic success and achievement. Envy, greed, power – these are the passions that drive these women. The word “love” is thrown around like so much spare change and is used as a tool to manipulate and gain power. Even when Christine is fucking, she forces her partners to wear a mask of herself, creating a barrier between passion and the sex act. She’d rather fuck herself or force men to be her so she can get off on her superior position to them and maintain the security of her position within herself.
Passion has all the slick style and slight-of-hand plot devices of the best Hitchcock and De Palma films combined. The movie is an alluring exercise in the aesthetics of artifice and duplicity. Set in a marketing firm in Germany with ties to London and New York, the setting represents the slick, cold artifice of the global market. It’s hard to resist its visual allure even if the surface is completely lacking in human depth.
Within this competitive high-end professional world, the two duplicitous women – Christine and Isabelle – jockey for their position within the firm. They fuck over each other, fuck over men, fuck men, and do what they can for power. The movie seduces us with style, color, architecture and the images of the females themselves. It is a tantalizing product reflecting the economic forces that drive production and the women who try to navigate that playing field.
To add fuel to the fire, De Palma threw in a third wildcard female Karoline Herfurth who also wants her slice of the pie (and, uh, “pussy”). There are so many twists and turns between these three women that you can get whiplash watching the film.
There are men involved, of course, but this story is about women in the economic world of men. It’s no surprise that the firm they work for is called Koch (pronounced “cock”). And these women do wear the cocks in this film. Sure, the big boss men orchestrate their positions within the firm, but most of the men are pawns and fall guys while the women hold the center in fluctuating ferocity. These women understand how to jockey for their positions so they can remain on top, to use a sexual phrase. “It’s all business” they say as they stab each other in the back and leave men groveling in their trails.
Marketing is a lie. That’s what it does and how it makes money, by selling lies. These women are the products of the very system they work for. They are self-created lies, femme fatales who are constantly shifting until we don’t know who’s who or what’s what.
However, these aren’t just any women. These are women who have subverted their “organic” female identity to survive and thrive in the man’s world of big business. The movie opens with Christine and Isabelle sharing a drink. When they both choke on what they’re drinking, Christine laughs and says, “It’s organic!” Of course it makes them gag. Both women are synthetic products, and organic is like poison to their plastic souls. This movie is largely about the bastardization of the “organic maternal” within the economic professional sphere, about how women subvert the “maternal feminine” to attain power in the global economy. Of course they’re going to choke when they swallow something organic.
These women are as hard as the shoes they wear. As shiny and impenetrable as their lacquered nails. They simultaneously up-play their sexuality while being cold and impenetrable. They are not caregivers, and their emotions cannot be trusted. They are calculating, scheming and duplicitous. When De Palma places them within the professional realm of the marketing sphere and sets them against each other, he shows a kind of mutation of the female within today’s slick “cutthroat” economy. And trust me, it IS cutthroat in this movie.
With their clothes, shoes and hyper-performed yet subverted sexuality, these women are like high-end office furniture, lamps or mirrors who reflect the environment they occupy. Their interior selves merge with the exterior of the film – the cars, fancy apartments, slick offices. Their motives are driven by interior desire, yet they are also symptoms of the exterior world. They are mere pieces within their economic environment, yet they are also symptoms of it. Their interior and exterior have become the same thing, a reflection of the economic world, a terribly ugly beautiful surface. Their professional economic environment causes the women to act how they act and molds them into what they become.
Passion is a kind of science fiction of the now narrative, a thriller about the mutation of the female cosmology when it’s placed within the global economic sphere and becomes entwined with the market and the forces of power that drive it. Sure these women are vengeful, calculating and in many ways as synthetic as their environment. They are hyper-female yet coldly economic, but they are also seething with sexuality because in De Palma’s movies (like Scarface) sex and economic power are the same thing. These women use sex to maintain their position of dominance and control. Is it attractive? On the exterior they are sexy as hell, even when they are slashing each other’s throats. On the interior, well, these gals have forfeited their interiors so that question doesn’t really matter.
Do they have choices to not be their jobs? Well, it’s not a choice that De Palma gives us. The women’s actions are motivated by artifice, and they in turn become artificial beings, with their designer clothes, executive offices, and marketing campaigns. They are like Stepford women who have graduated from the kitchen and moved into the high rise office building.
Interestingly, it is this artifice that lures us into the movie, disorients us, and holds us captive to its “sell”. We’re never really sure what’s happening in the film, yet we convince ourselves that we are sure. Plotting, scheming, maneuvering, voyeurism, sex, and murder are involved. We can see it all coming as we watch, but De Palma also turns us on our heads. Just like the market, the actions in the film are both predictable and volatile.
We may not be sure who is out to get who, but one thing is for sure – all these women are out to get each other one way or another as they angle for power and position. I refer to this movie as post-feminist cinema because certainly this is not an image of women that feminists would feel comfortable with, but it’s also a more accurate portrait of women in the new economy than most filmmakers would dare to create. There are multiple references to Medusa within the film – the mythic female who turns men to stone when they look at her –, but these women are already stone. It’s like a reverse parable – they have been turned to stone by gazing into and occupying the male world.
Don’t get me wrong. These women may occupy and vie for power within the male marketplace, but they do not act like men. They act like women. They look like women. But they are women from whom the maternal has been excised by economic forces. In one scene, Christine learns that one of her lovers has a daughter, and she is appalled, horrified, and disgusted . . . almost as if she’s choking on an organic drink. She just wants to get fucked. She doesn’t want to breed. The mere idea of the maternal feels like swallowing poison to her.
The film’s climatic “murder” scene contains a classic Hitchcock/De Palma split screen between a ballet, Isabelle’s eyes and the murder of Christine. What’s great about the scene is that we are not sure what Isabelle is watching — the ballet or Christine — while we also know that she is watching both. The multitudes of perspective are almost dizzying, but it also keeps us hooked as we watch through our eyes and want to see what’s going to happen, who’s doing the watching, who’s doing the doing, and what will happen next.
While the movie is a beautifully orchestrated thriller – a tight piece of cinematic architecture – it also resists tidy packaging, fluctuating to keep us sold on its product. There is no tidy ending because products shouldn’t end. They should provide infinite variations of the possibility of “more” to keep us hooked. The movie ends, then starts, then ends then starts until we don’t know what’s real, what’s a dream, what is truth and what’s reality. But that’s how the best marketing plans package their products – offering something we can’t quite grasp so we become consumed by our passion to own, and we want it more and more. The multiple imploding endings reflect the economy that drives the plot of the film. When the film finally says “The End”, there really is no “end.” There is only the idea – the image – of what the end might look like in one form of packaging. It makes sure that we want more.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.