Today’s post is written by a Shadowplay guest blogger, my partner Fiona Watson. Unavoidably, it contains major, though non-specific, spoilers for Soderbergh’s SIDE EFFECTS, so you should only read if you’ve seen the movie or else don’t intend to.
David had asked me in my (in)capacity as a sufferer of mental illness, (specifically mixed state bipolar disorder) to write something about Side Effects, but it turned into something a bit bigger. The subject of the presentation of mental health issues in film is vast and is probably more suited to a dissertation than a blog piece, so please forgive me for the rather fragmentary, scattershot feel to this piece.
Let’s get something straight first. I like Steven Soderbergh films. I like them very much. I liked his pandemic opus where Gwyneth Paltrow gets the top of her head sawn off. Who wouldn’t? I liked his female mixed martial artist actioner starring Gina Carrano, a woman who can actually do all the amazing things her character’s required to do, including kicking the crap out of then murderizing the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender. Nice. I’m chomping on my specially rhinestone-encrusted bit to see his HBO Liberace biopic, Behind The Candelabra. But oh, Steven Soderbergh, did your swan song from cinema have to be Side Effects?
I always become infused with excitement and hope when someone makes a film tackling mental illness. It’s a subject close to my malfunctioning brain and heart. I had my first depressive episode in 1994. Since then I’ve had recurrent visits from The Black Dog. Many years can go by when I’m perfectly fine. Then The Dog rears its ugly head, eyes blazing and seizes me in its slavering jaws, tossing me around like a rag doll. Trust me. I’m well qualified to talk about this subject but I don’t recommend it as a lifestyle choice.
And so I turn my expert eye on Side Effects. My excitement is always tempered with concern. Have they got it right? The answer is that for half of this film’s running time, they do get it right, before (SPOILER ALERT) the thing devolves into Basic Instinct with psychiatrists and lesbians and lesbian psychiatrists. Now to be fair, it’s not Steven Soderbergh’s fault he didn’t make the film I wanted to see, a serious study of psychiatric disorder and its treatment in the modern world. What we have instead is a twisty turny thriller. Nothing wrong with that and it delivers very well. Rooney Mara, an utterly fabulous and compelling actress, is great, and her low-key, low affect, unshowy performance is commendable. She nails the deadening, wading through molasses physicality of depression perfectly.
But the big surprise is how good Jude Law is. What is particularly impressive about his psychiatrist character is his ambiguity. Apparently this doesn’t play well with test audiences. ‘Is he good? Is he bad? Is he both? I can’t handle both!’ Catherine Zeta Jones is also very effective as the other psychiatrist. As the whole world must know by now, CZJ has Bipolar II. It’s my belief she never would have revealed her mental health status had it not been on the verge of being leaked to the press. So she made the announcement herself in a pre-emptive strike. In fact she recently gave an interview where she pronounced herself fed up with being the Bipolar Poster Girl du jour, and who can blame her given the circumstances behind it being made public?
On the whole, I enjoyed the film but left feeling short-changed. The trouble is — major spoiler alert — plot twists reveal that nothing that happens in the film happens due to mental illness, drug side effects, or the pharmaceutical industry. The first half sets us up to think about these issues, but the second half negates them. The Black Dog is a Red Herring. And while the film performs its narrative tricks well, if you do think about the story afterwards, you will probably come to the conclusion that no real person would embark on a criminal conspiracy of the kind seen in this film.
There are very few films (in the English language) that tackle the subject of mental illness head on and with any degree of accuracy. The only film in which I’ve ever seen psychomotor retardation — where you physically slow down in speech and movement like a clockwork toy winding down — was Mike Figgis’s Mr Jones which I’ll come back to later. Nicole Kidman’s turn as Virginia Wolfe in The Hours was laughable. In reality Wolfe would become so manic she’d dash around the house talking gibberish at high speed, hallucinating talking birds and her dead mother. When she crashed with depression she was basically catatonic and took to her bed for weeks on end. All I could see was an actor moping around in a prosthetic nose. Not good enough. She didn’t even give us the monotone voice that comes with psychomotor retardation. I haven’t read the book so I have no idea if there’s a more accurate representation there and it’s the adaptation that’s at fault. The world is crying out for a full and accurate Wolfe biopic, with all the highs and lows laid bare.
And speaking of ‘real life’ characters, what about the largely negative critical reaction to Keira Knightly’s performance as Sabina Speilrein in A Dangerous Method? The emphasis was solely on The Chin. The Chin was jutting out at a weird angle. The Chin seemed to have a life of its own, wandering about in a carefree fashion. What would The Chin do next? Almost everyone agreed that Keira and The Chin were over the top. What those journalists didn’t know was that Spielrein’s behaviour was one hundred times more weird and unpredictable than the few hysterical tics Cronenberg had decided upon. Maybe sometimes it’s necessary to edit the truth.
One recent film that gives us the highs but edits the lows of bipolar disorder is Silver Linings Playbook. It’s great on mania but it barely touches on depression. I put it to you that the reason for this is that no audience wants to pay to see Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence sobbing inconsolably and so lacking in energy they can barely lift a fork. And if there was an audience that would, it would be quite select. It might be more palatable if Bradley Cooper took his shirt off (more than he does already), ditto Jennifer Lawrence. In fact you could probably model an entire franchise out of Jennifer Lawrence crying and having difficulty eating her dinner if she was bereft of outer wear. But I digress. Watching someone being depressed just isn’t entertaining and that’s the crux of the problem. The reality of mental illness is horrifying and gruelling, and your average punter wants to be entertained, not bludgeoned over the head with troublesome ‘facts’.
However, one brilliantly conceived scene, a ‘meet cute’ over the dinner table with the leads swapping pharmacological anecdotes gets a big seal of approval from me. “Gooble Gobble. Gooble Gobble. One of us. One of us.” (I wonder what my ‘seal of approval’ would look like? Perhaps a blister pack with a smiley over each compartment.) Later on, Bradley and Jennifer go to a diner and we have another marvellous scene where she tells him all about her “slut wife” status. In psychiatric parlance, Jen had become ‘hypersexual’ in the aftermath of her husband’s death. This is a (little discussed) symptom of bipolar disorder. In the past she would have been labelled as a nymphomaniac. A subject matter that enormously subtle, uncontroversial film maker Lars Von Trier will be tackling in his next feature. Hopefully, Lars will be making another appearance later in this article. He will be arriving by camper van because of his fear of flying so he could show up at any moment. Or not at all.
Remember back in the mists of three paragraphs ago when I mentioned I’d be back with something more to say about Mr Jones? Well here I am. And here he is. In all his buff, manic, silver foxy, highly compromised glory. If ever a film felt like it had been cut to ribbons to appease queasy producers it’s this one. According to rumour, the producers of Mr Jones said, “I know this could cut the running time a bit, but could he be a Manic rather than a Manic Depressive?” All of this must have been rather depressing for Mr Figgis, because he does manage to squeeze in the aforementioned psychomotor retardation – Gere wanders pitifully and very, very slowly through the city, unable to even wash. He finds himself in a building which looks like a Music Academy. This building exists in the past (at least that’s my reading of it) and each room is an echo from decades before. The sounds become cacophonous. Everything becomes more chaotic. This is a very skillful evocation of the confusion, sensitivity to noise and horrible nostalgia of manic depression. Somehow he makes it back to his apartment where Lena Olin and her hair are waiting for him. He ends up slumped on a stool in a shower, naked and grubby, while an annoyingly cheerful psychiatric nurse sings at him (“C’mon let’s make a round!”) and hoses him down. Depression on its own just doesn’t put bums on seats. Richard Gere charging into an orchestra recital and taking over the conducting DOES. Well a few bums anyway. Mr Jones was not a great box office success. Realistic depictions of psychiatric suffering just don’t create revenue. A shame since this is probably Gere’s finest performance to date.
If you want to experience that kind of thing you probably have to look outside of English language cinema. Or get yourself sectioned. Oh look here comes Lars! He’s just parked the camper van! “Hi Lars! How’s it hangin’?!” I have yet to see Lars’ Melancholia. Von Trier and his leading lady Kirsten Dunst have both made their statuses as depressives public. For someone who’ll happily confess to feeling sympathetic towards Nazis, Von Trier is surprisingly tight-lipped about the details of his depression and anxiety. What kind of treatment regime is he on? Does he even have one? Charlotte Gainsbourg has a very convincing panic attack in Antichrist, which I felt he must have coached her through in some detail. Perhaps we have to look to Lars for an unexpurgated cinematic representation of depression, when he’s finished dabbling in hardcore depictions of the life of a ‘Nymphomaniac,’ a descriptor which no longer exists in the DSM.
Because even in the arthouse sector, mental illness isn’t seen as box office unless you edit the reality down to something more appealing.