Berlin Film Festival review: Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects is a preposterous guilty pleasure

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This Freudian thriller is chock-full of murder, blackmail and illicit lesbian affairs

Steven Soderbergh’s latest feature (screening in competition in Berlin) is a wildly overdetermined Freudian thriller which piles plot twists on top of plot twists, becoming ever more preposterous as it does so.

It is also enjoyable in a guilty pleasure sort of way, throwing in elements - murder, blackmail, illicit lesbian affairs, all washed down with lashings of psychoanalysis – that you’d expect to find in Paul Verhoeven's steamier thrillers. Soderbergh has claimed that Side Effects will be his last feature. If that really is the case and he is in "the twilight of his career," as he told journalists in Berlin today, he is going out on a very camp note.

Soderbergh movies tend to come in two shapes. There are the solemn, self-important ones - Erin Brockovich, Che Parts 1 and 2 – and then there are the playful ones. Side Effects begins as if it is one of the former. Scott Z. Burns’ tricksy screenplay seems to be shaping up an exposé of wrong-doing by the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical companies. Then it veers off in a different direction altogether.

Rooney Mara plays Emily, a 28-year-old woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released after serving time in prison for insider trading. Emily is seemingly suffering from severe depression. Thanks to her husband’s misdeeds, she has lost her wealth, status and self-confidence. She may even be suicidal. Jude Law is the psychiatrist who looks after her, prescribing her a new, untested drug recommended by her previous psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones.) This, it seems, has some very strange side effects. Those who take it can act at times as if they are sleep walking – and have no recollection of what they’ve done.

Reflecting Emily’s state of mind, the film has a dream-like quality. The wonderfully eerie Thomas Newman score, reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s music for Hithcock’s films, adds to the sense of the uncanny. It is easy enough to spot Soderbergh’s influences – Vertigo and Les Diaboliques alongside countless B-movie psychological thrillers and Patricia Highsmith novels.

The acting often tends toward the hammy. Jude Law is in smirking and shifty form as the British psychiatrist who becomes increasingly paranoid himself. He’s no James Stewart but his performance is in keeping with the material. Rooney Mara is effective, too, as the listless and depressed woman who turns out to have hidden depths. Meanwhile, a bespectacled Catherine Zeta-Jones behaves as if she is on leave from a Coen brothers comedy.

At times, the plotting is so tangled that it is hard to work out just what is going on. Characters’ behaviour and motivations are hard to surmise. The shifts in tone are likewise disconcerting. Side Effects flirts with many different genres. It’s at once a medical drama, a courtroom drama, a prison drama and a murder mystery.

Occasionally, it is every bit as irritating as The Informant! the equally slippery comedy thriller that Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns collaborated on in 2009. In the final reel, a film that started in relatively sober fashion has suddenly veered off into the realm of wildly improbable melodrama. However, if audiences stop trying to unravel the very tangled plot and don’t mind have the carpet pulled from under their feet again and again, they should find plenty here to relish.

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