Brian De Palma at our free Summer Talks series. Photo: Philip Mays

The corporate thriller finds a new twist in celebrated filmmaker Brian De Palma's Passion. The film stars Rachel McAdams and Swedish-born actress Noomi Rapace as a duo at the center of a corporate battle that unfolds against a backdrop of flirtation, ambition and conniving manipulation. Passion, which opens Friday at Film Society, is a re-interpretation of French filmmaker Alain Corneau's final thriller, Crimes d'Amour (Love Crimes), which also featured battling female leads.

De Palma was approached about doing an English-language version of the film by a producer of the original and quickly saw the potential to add his own flavor. The result was the film that eventually debuted at last year's New York Film Festival. “I like the relationship between the two women and the way the were manipulating each other,” De Palma told a crowded audience during one of our recent Summer Talks. “But the girls in my film took the back-stabbing and tension a lot further.”

Set in a Berlin advertising agency, the film centers on Christine (McAdams) and Noomi (Isabelle), two beautiful and complicated women. Isabelle is the preferred protégé of Christine, who takes her under her wing in her quest to conquer the corporate ladder. There are also romantic undertones, further twisting the pair's increasingly complex relationship, which comes to a head when ambition and vengeance hit a crescendo.

“We had other people interested in playing Isabelle, but we couldn't find actresses that wanted to play the bitchy Christine,” offered a chuckling De Palma at the event in the Film Center. “Those are the fun parts to play, but I guess everyone wants to be loved.”

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

De Palma was not the only person who had ideas about changing the original Corneau film. After casting Rapace and McAdams, the women also had strong opinions about how their characters' personalities should be crafted. With a tight shooting schedule and persistent feedback coming from the two actresses, De Palma called in the reinforcements in the form of writer Natalie Carter, who also worked on the original script for Crimes d'Amour.

“I re-wrote it a few times. And then the girls came in and—well, the girls had a few ideas about how they were going to act,” said De Palma. “I showed them the original [film] and much to my surprise, they said, 'We're not doing that…' So Natalie and I worked for a week re-writing the script to fit how they wanted to play their characters. We had some really tense moments.”

The result is a sumptuous thriller shot beautifully by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, a frequent collaborator of Pedro Almodóvar. A typical De Palma theme also present in Passion are the characters' secrets, which emerge when they are placed under pressure or frightened. Christine clearly wants to break through the glass ceiling and believes she can use Isabelle to achieve her goals, but it soon becomes obvious that it won't work so easily. Isabelle is an uncooperative pawn.

“I let the girls take it as far as they could,” said De Palma. “There's a mafia kiss Christine gives to Noomi and it's like the kiss of death. And then she finds her assistant in the doorway… Her assistant is in love with her.” (A clip from the scene referenced is featured in the video below).

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

[Spoilers follow…]

Raw ambition inevitably leads to a crime, played out in the course of a ballet in a scene that recalls moments of De Palma's 1976 film Carrie. The original Corneau film offered a milieu of clues about the crime, though De Palma simplified it down to a gift that Christine gives Isabelle in the opening scenes of the movie.

“The one thing I wasn't too into in the Corneau film was that there are five clues in the film that trap Isabel in with the crime, but then later you have to explain why they didn't catch Isabelle, so there were a lot of flashbacks, but I got it down to one clue—the scarf—and it comes back to that.”

Watch complete video of our Summer Talk with Brian De Palma below to hear more about the film, spirited responses to queries, De Palma's thoughts on the remake of Carrie by Boys Don't Cry filmmaker Kimberly Pierce and proposed sequels to some of his classic films. He also reacts to seeing his past work, recalls memorable moments on the set of Scarface and gives his take on “the problem with movie stars,” auditioning porn stars, and his next project.

Passion opens Friday, August 30 at Film Society with Q&As with Brian De Palma on Friday and Saturday.