Classics of the genre like The Big Sleep vilify women, while Steven Soderbergh's latest seems to think female characters are just not that important.
The noir genre is built out of misogyny. The irrational, the corrupt, and the perverse—the elements that give noir its air of brooding, anxious despair—all cluster around, and creep out of, the femme fatale, whose sexuality and malice poison not only the men she targets for destruction, but the entire world. Thus, the iconic moment in Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep when pretty young Carmen Sternwood reveals her madness—"Her whole face went to pieces." Chandler writes. "Then her head screwed up towards her left ear and froth showed on her lip. Her breath made a whining sound." It's a portrait of woman as insanity—and not coincidentally, as death's head.
Steven Soderbergh's new film Side Effects is mostly an engine for delivering Very Surprising Plot Twists. A big part of the way it does that is by switching up a kind of movie-of-the-week problem film (the struggles with depression; the pathos of a spouse returning from prison) with noir. So you go from female-friendly melodrama (with a female protagonist) to female-loathing noir (with a male protagonist). Noir and its attendant misogyny aren't really the point, in other words; they're just a byproduct of Soderbergh's rage for cleverness. A side effect, if you will.
Still, as the film makes clear, side effects—even ersatz ones—can matter quite a bit. In this case, a lot of the damage is not so much to the woman in the film as to the male lead, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Banks is supposed to be a caring, talented hard-working psychiatrist, with a loving wife and child. But then his depressed patient, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) goes off the rails spectacularly—and everything Banks has worked for collapses. His practice, his professional reputation, even his family disintegrate around him.
This is fairly standard issue suspense-movie fodder, of course, and the standard issue suspense-movie emotional engagement would involve the audience rooting for Banks to unravel the even-more snarled plot strands, defeat the bad guys (or gals), and get his life back together. There is one hitch, however. Despite the best efforts of Law and of the filmmakers, Banks is... well, he's not very likable, is the truth. Professionally, he comes across increasingly as a duplicitous schmoozer, running after drug company money and worrying more about whether he can keep his paying clients than about whether he can help them. His homelife, too, seems a sham; his rapport with his wife is close to nonexistent; he doesn't listen to her, she doesn't trust him. Though Soderbergh throws in some pro-forma horseplay between them, there is exponentially more sexual chemistry between Banks and psychiatrist Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), even though the two therapists have little screen time together, and aren't supposed to have any romantic relationship at all.
Of course, even (or especially) buttoned up with librarian glasses, Zeta-Jones always exudes sensuality. That's no doubt why Soderbergh cast her; she's an ideal femme fatale. All she really has to do is stand next to the sensitive, earnest Banks and his sensitive earnestness crumbles around him. He should want her; he must want her. His good husband schtick, then, must be a lie.
The film, though, insists that it isn't a lie—which is to say that it doesn't have the courage of its own misogyny. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rooney Mara are both ready, willing, and able to overwhelm the film with malevolent gyno-evil, but Soderbergh just isn't quite willing to go there.
In The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe deliberately and explicitly refuses Carmen's sexual advances; he stays out of the filth. In something like The Last Seduction, on the other hand, the hapless male is consumed by his own lust, manipulated by feminine will and feminine corruption. In noir, men can stay pure by refusing women altogether, or they can follow their dicks and be destroyed.
Side Effects, though, vacillates and hedges. Banks is accused of sexual impropriety, but the film never contemplates for a second that he might actually give in to such a thing, nor even that he might face temptation and resist, a la Marlowe. Instead, he's just a sunny Hollywood good guy caught in the wrong film; trundling along as if justice and right will prevail—as if women with their sex and schemes and madness haven't already poisoned the earth.
You might think that noir with less misogyny would be a good thing, at least in terms of representations of women. But it turns out that that is not really the case. Misogyny is, at least, attention. Chandler and noir may loathe women, but at least that means they think women are important. The Last Seduction makes Linda Fiorentino into a hyperbolic evil bitch goddess—but at least she gets to have the fun of being a hyperbolic evil bitch goddess. Side Effects, on the other hand, reaches into noir for its fascinating, deadly women—and then myopically insists that we pledge our allegiance instead to a standard Hollywood male protagonist and his reservoirs of oleaginous self-absorption.
Noir is terrified of feminization and powerful women—which means, in part, that it is able to conceive of, and even perhaps at times to point towards, both of those things. Side Effects, in contrast, borrows some tropes from noir, but they're chewed to nothing in the remorseless grinding of the plot. In the end, we're left, not with noir or with misogyny, but simply with the complacent smirk that signals that once again the good guy who is a guy gets to live happily ever after.