There are different kinds of cinema in the auteur tradition. Last week, I reviewed Isabel Coixet’s first feature, Things I never Told You (1996), an unassuming dramatic comedy, with as much depth as a 21-minute network sitcom. It had some interesting actors, but everything was flattened. The point was to show she could excel at piecing together something simple, consumable, but strangely shallow. But I’ve not given up on her and will be viewing her later work in the coming weeks. How will it differ? Will it be as lyrical as it should be? Or will it stay in posturing, merely glancing, the depths of the inner life.
Here comes Soderbergh. Not in the same territory as Coixet, but let me draw a few parallels. Cinematic economy, dramatic tension, inner experience. But where Coixet says “This is my movie”, Soderbergh asks “What is a movie?”. Coixet seems to know, Soderbergh is on a quest to find out. Which one do you think excites the cinematic intelligence?
What starts out as a character piece quickly morphs into a noir thriller, hopscotching over tropes (courtroom, conspiracy, procedural) and turning into another folded essay on what it means to view a film, to get involved with characters, to make sense of visual cues, to think vision.
This is supposedly Soderbergh’s swan song. I don’t blame him for retiring, he seems to have touched on everything of interest in this film. If like me, and like him, you are a scholar of the Vertigo school of filmmaking: stories that explore the very reason for their existence, the intimate contract between audience and filmmaker, the philosophical underpinnings of getting tangled up in stories, then you’ll be rewarded here.
Before I go on, let’s get a few things clear. I understand that film can be many different things to different people. There is usually a lot of hoopla on them being for entertainment purposes only. I think that may be true. But everyone will have to decide for themselves. For ex, a cerebral film can be entertaining as much as a James Bond film or an experimental structural short film. It depends on the viewer. For a film viewer like me, an avid cinephile, an aspiring auteur, a student of the art, I have to agree w the general consensus that films ARE entertainment. Real life is serious stuff, work, family, friends. Films on the other hand, are small chunks of time, imbued with humanistic substance. They reflect the world, whether they are made from a market formula, or they come from the mind of one individual. For ex, some hold zombie films as one of the most entertaining genres, which I don’t disagree with. Cheap sci-fi from the 50’s and 60’s, thrilling erotic films from the same period, or even the gaudy dramas of the silent era, there are many genres, each with their own merits, attracting their respective audience.
An auteur, in the way I understand it, is someone who creates a film that emulates his favorite genres, whatever those may be. Above that, he can choose to layer in insights about his quest in life. The assumption here is that everyone has a personal quest in life. The auteur’s personal vision shines through his work as each and every movie reflects his growth and expansion. That’s the interest in the auteur, a sort of novelistic continuation of his progression, with stories as a metaphor coupled with cinematic technique. Now isn’t that entertaining? The lives of countless souls, encoded stories, within stories, a life of art, each a message in a bottle into a sea of watchful eyes.
Life is a short journey, 60-80 years average, how will you spend yours? Leaving behind stuff? So that when you reincarnate in another body you may stumble on clues leftover in order to retrace your steps in the ultimate quest of remembering who you are, and what is your purpose?
So what is Soderbergh leaving for posterity? A simple thriller about a psychiatrist uncovering some kind of lesbian conspiracy? Or is he touching on something deeper, that very few have spoken of, because very few have dared to go there.
Rooney Mara is perfect as the principal raconteur, pulling the ground from under our feet. How? By telling a story how someone pulled the ground from under her feet. Her aloof manner, raspy groan, sweat and sex, emulating Angelina Jolie and Lili Taylor. Not just a chic blaze junkie, but a true derelict, with murderous intent. An intensely dark character, the likes of which have never been seen before in a Soderbergh film.
Jude Law, the hapless noir hero. Channeling Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. Losing everything, and forced to construct, more than just uncover, the hidden reality that has snatched him and made him a scapegoat for someone’s personal gain. A free pen, a car advert, a quoted poem, and a taped confession. Soderbergh comes full circle, referencing his own debut, for his last film.
Yes, we’re fooled, that’s the first lesson. We are then forced to reconsider everything we viewed. “Follow the money. If things don’t make sense still, there is always a woman”. Life as detective work. Depression as posturing. Killing as an inevitability, moneyed fantasy as a false escape route.