More on Side Effects (2013)

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Here’s a story for you.

Let’s say that depression was a big theme in the last year. Starting with Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia”, which I didn’t find was an accurate portrayal of the affliction. What could Kristen Dunst show us about depression that would resonate? Very little, specially since the script didn’t account for the backstory that would allow more sympathy for her character. At first sight, she looked like a white, privileged, dumb girl, in a European Cannes-bound film. If anything, Trier’s new plaything was set to undergo a soul demolition in the third act (a la Bjork, Kidman, or Watson). Surprisingly, Trier had a lot of sympathy for her character, who goes from slightly annoyed but unable to express why, to completely deluded and unrealistic in the face of upcoming doom. No suspension of disbelief for this viewer.

Around the same time, Soderbergh was shooting a thriller about the outbreak of a highly contagious disease. Top acting talent was recruited, everyone with deep involvement to previous genre-defining projects. I’m talking about Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Soderbergh’s style is one of direct simplicity and effectiveness. Medium shots, rhythmic editing, and a score that is as subdued as it is engaging. There is something classical about his style, which works towards the ultimate goal of suspending disbelief. It might not work for everybody, but if you like DePalma,  Scorsese, Coppola, then Soderbergh is their right heir.

So here’s another story. Soderbergh makes his last movie, Side Effects, a thriller about the pharmaceutical industry, anti-depressive drugs, and the stock market. We start out by following Emily (Rooney Mara) who is going through a depressive phase, her husband is soon to be released from jail, and she’s unsure whether she wants to remain with him. She meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who will become the hero of the story, but at first seems like a secondary character. As the story unfolds and changes gears,  Dr. Banks suspects he’s being framed by Emily, who agrees to take a certain anti-depressant that causes her to murder her husband during a sleepwalking episode, supposedly a side effect of the drug.

Now there’s an interesting twist. Suddenly the audience has to shift focus from Emily, to Dr. Banks, as he becomes the hero of the story trying to make sense of the events that have just occurred. It appears we were fooled. Our sympathies for Emily are cast into doubt. She might have been acting it all along. Why? This is what Dr. Banks hopes to find out.

So we see Dr. Banks in distress as he loses his partnership in the clinic, his sponsorship contracts from drug companies, and even his wife who suspects a love affair with his client. What follows is a meta-analysis of the movie’s first half, as Dr. Banks looks for clues that point to Emily’s supposed act. There might have been a large sum of money involved. There might have been a secret partnership with a rival doctor. And most unexpectedly, there might have been a lesbian love affair.

What appeals to me here, is the straightforward structure of the story which starts out by deepening our engagement with what appears to be facts, and suddenly instilling real doubt and questioning the character’s motivations. In other words, he makes us fall in love, only to show us that it wasn’t real, and how easily we can be fooled. There is undoubtedly an expose on the mechanics of cinema. How much of ourselves do we invest in a film? And is it healthy? Who’s really profiting from it all and mostly to our detriment?

Here’s another story. I’m 21 years old, it’s 2003. I’m feeling depressed. I don’t like my field of study: software engineering. I spend most of my freetime, listening to music, or getting wasted at bars. I know I want to do something meaningful with my life, but I don’t know what that is yet. I decide to quit my engineering studies. I start renting movies. I end up working at an online DVD store. I keep watching movies. I start getting the feeling that my life can become a long wonderful journey full of visions, and fantasies. I decide to apply to film school. I manage to get in. I make a short film, which I consider a failure. I don’t make any more short films, but I keep studying until I graduate. It’s 2010 now, I’m not sure I still want to make films. I get a job as a computer technician. I’m still depressed. I keep writing about film.

When will it all end?

This year hopefully. If anything, Soderbergh has made the movie to end all movies, for me.  I was able to see that my infatuation with cinema comes down to nothing but being seduced by appearances. Every movie I keep watching sustains the original fantasy. This mechanism takes place at every other level of my life, personal relationships and professional relationships. It is my addiction.

Somebody once told me “I know what you’re looking for, and you won’t find it there. Other dimensions do exist, but film is not the way to them.” So today, I quit.

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Categories: female leads, Notes

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