Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is an assistant to ad agency bigwig Christine (Rachel McAdams). The disparity in position is pretty vast for two women of roughly the same age — somewhere in the 30s — and it's pretty obvious why. Isabelle is a bit of a mouse: She doesn't blow her own horn; she's creative but sensitive, maybe even shy. Christine is all brass: She steadily blows her own horn, even stealing some solos from her minions; her only sensitivity is to threats to her power and her only creativity concerns how to eradicate those threats.
She is, at a minimum, a complete sociopath. Notions like ethics and guilt would probably make her laugh — unless there was someone present she was trying to impress. Efficacy is the only standard she seems to know. She steals the work of others; she schemes, and she even manipulates the office romances.
The only behavior she exhibits beyond her ruthless careerism is sadism. It's not enough to knock down her opponents; better yet is to humiliate them in public at the same time. She is, in a phrase, a real piece of work.
Her sexual desire may be genuine, but we sense that she exploits it more for power than for libido satisfaction. The film's opening scene — the two women laughing together as “friends” — has a barely hidden sexual tension. Isabelle is profoundly uncomfortable with Christine's unspoken advances — as well as with those from her own assistant (Karoline Herfurth). She is less uncomfortable when Christine pushes her into a relationship with a male business associate (Paul Anderson), who either is, or was, one of Christine's lovers.
Much of the story can't be discussed without spoilers, so let's just say that a murder is committed, possibly by one of the above, and there are clever plot reversals.
In general, De Palma has cleaved closely to the French original for the first two-thirds of his film. Much of the dialogue is word-for-word, and some scenes are shot and staged with utter faithfulness. Some of his changes are for the good, but far more of them detract. He wisely chose to change Isabelle's assistant from male to female, thereby setting up an “All About Eve” dynamic. On the other hand, he introduces extra plot elements toward the end that add nothing and muddy the water.
The biggest problem, however, is the casting of McAdams. In the original, Christine was played by that master of the brittle and evil, Kristin Scott Thomas. She was nearly 20 years older than her costar, Ludivine Sagnier, which made more sense plotwise and also made the character more formidable and frightening. In contrast, McAdams is a junior high drama student wearing her mother's outsized clothes.
De Palma manages to shoehorn in some of his trademark devices. Since “Carrie,” his fondness for shock cuts of characters awakening from nightmares has spread and become a minor blight on commercial filmmaking.
Besides the casting, one other change weakens the story's effectiveness. In Corneau's film, we see the killer setting up the murder, but several of these actions are so self-incriminating or sloppy as to make no immediate sense. De Palma drops all that, making things more ambiguous — not a good thing in this case. Corneau makes us wonder what the killer is up to. De Palma makes us wonder whodunit, which is a far less interesting question.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).