I have been completely obsessed with Soderbergh’s “Side Effects”, regardless of its supposed plotholes or “cheap thriller” with “nonsense twists” quality.
I admit that it does have a bit of the “cheap” in it, but that’s all for the better, as the worst that could happen is for something to be too serious, right? Most of the criticism has been directed at the lesbian affair between Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta Jones and how it doesn’t seem believable that two women, fetching in their looks, would hatch an insider trading plot that involves one of them killing the husband they are unhappily married to.
As you may or may not know if you’ve seen the movie (upcoming spoilers), Rooney Mara’s character in the story pretends to suffer from sleepwalking side effects from an anti-depressant when she murders her husband. The movie then becomes about how Jude Law’s character uncovers the secret plot behind the murder. For Jude Law (emphasis mine), it is not merely a matter of pride, but an existential challenge that warrants the complete recovery of his self and his world. Not only is he pushed out of his partnership at the clinic, but his marriage is interrupted through a blackmailing scheme involving staged photographs. During his own investigation, he connects facts by reasoning visually: he goes to Rooney Mara’s character’s workplace and observes her environment. He interviews her colleagues and gathers the testimonies of other people who have seen her. He tries to look at things through her eyes.
But the point in all this is not to be in awe of Jude Law’s detecting techniques. What the movie is really about, but is barely touched upon, is Rooney Mara’s character’s, lonely, misunderstood, unhappy, and resentful, BISEXUAL being. Soderbergh’s running theme has always been the psychology of sex, and how cleverly he can enwrap this in the ‘thriller’ form.
In a movie that is structured with many other movie-withins (the set-up, the procedural detection, the phony confessions), where every character has to ‘pretend’ at some point or another, fooling the audience, the truly nested fantasy movie, and ultimate lie, is the conception Rooney Mara has about her marriage to Channing Tatum. It is a complete fantasy, a pure dream. An overblown white sky, a vision of luxury, a perfect future. But also, inherently, a repression, or maybe a confusion, an ambiguity, about her sexual nature.
I ask, would a “normal” heterosexual woman throw herself into an affair with a much older female psychologist, and go so far as to plot the murder of her husband so she could then elope in lesbian bliss? Maybe what Side Effects is ultimately truly about is the psychology of our sexual nature, and how it affects the stories we tell ourselves about how we should live. The soft nature of our desires. Relationships, infidelities, sexual fulfillment.
It seems to me that Rooney Mara’s character and her bisexuality is the real engine driving her murderous intentions. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character is clearly the dominating, manipulative partner in the relationship. Why would someone commit murder, a dangerous irreparable act, if it wasn’t also a statement about themselves, a self-assertion, about deception in love because of one’s bisexual (read ambiguous) nature. Rooney Mara’s internal conflict is not whether she should kill or not, but whether life is better lived with a man, or a woman.
Overall, the lesson here is that love and desire is such a fragile thing, a series of frayed knots. As we fall in love with our fantasies, they will keep collapsing. There is no use in planning escapes, or intricate plots for our happiness. Like Jude Law’s meticulous uncovering of the plot, it is better to work on things day by day, in the small.