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The Berlinale Blog: Crazy, stupid, love

When is madness expedient? Eve Lucas saw Steven Soderbergh’s return to form with a neo-noir exposition of white-collar craziness and competing director Bruno Dumont's harshly realistic look at the faces of mental instability

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“Side Effects”

One positive side effect of Steven Soderbergh’s much publicized decision to depart from mainstream filmmaking is that in terms of swansong, Side Effects is a film that makes this decision infinitely more regrettable than, let’s say, Magic Mike. Dealing ostensibly with a crime committed under the influence of a pharmaceutical product still in the testing phase, the film marries the pace of last years out-of-competition Haywire with the effective use of heavily tinted visuals to render the claustrophobia of closed-space explored to such good effect in Traffic and The Informant! – to name just a couple of many examples.  Thematically, Soderbergh continues to explore the themes of deceit and control; an ongoing obsession ever since Sex, Lies, and Videotape and one that’s further evidenced by his pseudonymed participation in both the editing and cinematography for this film. No wonder the man needs a break.

Anybody intimating even deeper reserves of delicate ruthlessness than those shown in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo won’t be disappointed by Rooney Mara as Emily, a young woman whose mental imbalances are exacerbated by the much anticipated release of her husband (Channing Tatum) from prison after four years for insider trading. From panic attacks to groundless weeping, her condition is picture perfect meltdown. Filmed with close-up empathy, Soderbergh cleverly encourages the kind of reaction normally reserved for the world of happy-pill advertising which the film’s visuals evoke: the fact that well-meaning psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) allows himself to get involved in this scenario is only one of several skimpily presented plot non-sequiturs. But Soderbergh has been a master of cinematic craftsmanship rather than visionary narrative. With every one of the weapons in his considerable arsenal of effects (plus this year’s statutory dose of same-sexed lust) enlisted to help tighten the screw of suspense, Side Effects Soderbergh looks set to go out – if not with a Golden Bear, than at least with some well-deserved audience kudos.

Which is not something we can reasonably anticipate for Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915. Those unfamiliar with Claudel’s story as Auguste Rodin’s muse and sculptural nemesis are unlikely to come away historically enlightened as Dumont presents a brief episode from the nearly years 30 years Claudel spent in a mental health institution in the South of France. Neither Dumont’s mission nor his method is mimetic: there is no setting out, follow through, conclusion. What we see is a state of being, a woman at a moment in her existence, incarcerated with people whose (real) condition of severe disability is reflected in her reactions to them – of anger, affection, frustration. Cold, sunny days, carefully constructed in shots of blue and grey, reflect the postulate of gentle, emotional control on which the church-run Montdevergues asylum was based – and through which Camille’s energetic and spirited movements resonate with her – and our – unspoken awareness that she does not belong here. 

As she waits for the arrival of her younger brother, the Catholic writer Paul Claudel, on a rare visit, Camille is shown in the situations that mark her days: eating, writing, walking with the other residents. Dumont provides a minimum of contextualization, based on Camille’s medical records and her diary: there is some talk – with the doctor who seems inclined to support her request for release – with the nuns at the Montdevergues asylum, and with her brother, when he finally arrives. We learn all that we need to know about her situation, and about a brother’s religiosity that bodes ill for the hopes she has of their encounter. But mostly, it’s Binoche’s face, and a performance that is beyond performance.