'Side Effects' Rejects the Usual Sexism of Noir but Is Sexist in Its Own Way

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.

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Open Road

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.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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