What Was Steven Soderbergh Doing With Mosaic?

It helps to think about Italian Divisionism, Schizopolis, and ambiguous images.


This article contains spoilers through all six episodes of Mosaic.

A promotional poster for Mosaic, the six-part HBO miniseries/interactive app created by Steven Soderbergh, depicts the face of its star, Sharon Stone, like a painting in chiaroscuro. Stone’s features are shaded in tones of green and red, half in light, half in dark. The tagline for the image: “Look again.”

The poster offers clues as to the intentions for Mosaic, whose final two episodes aired on Friday night. A longer version of the project, though, had been released late in 2017 as an app, designed for users to orient their own way through the narrative and experience it through the perspectives of different characters. This two-pronged approach seems to define Mosaic, which constantly plays with form and duality. At any given time, it’s both a dazzlingly experimental work and a totally conventional murder mystery. It’s frank and secretive, flooding viewers with information without giving them the tools to make sense of it. The story has multiple different paths to follow, but they all end up in the same place. Less a show than a television experience, it’s brilliant and exasperating.

Both the series and the app present themselves as puzzles to be solved, but following the tracks throughout the six distinct episodes is more challenging, since clues and allusions dropped in the first few installments only really make sense when you’ve seen all six. Mosaic begins in medias res, with the only information being that the scene is happening in Summit, Utah, “right now.” In a nondescript hallway, Joel (Garrett Hedlund) is being informed by Police Detective Nate Henry (Devin Ratray) that there’s a damning amount of evidence implicating him in a crime. Then the action rewinds to four years ago, as the children’s-book author Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone) has a fundraiser for her art foundation, Mosaic. She spots Joel, a graphic artist who’s bartending at the event, from across the room, and swiftly makes his acquaintance.

The first episode is disorienting, introducing a barrage of new characters and schemes without clarifying the interplay between them. It’s set primarily in Summit (a fictional ski resort that appears to be based on, and filmed in, Park City), where Olivia lives on a sprawling property that she bought with the proceeds of her best-known work, Whose Woods These Are. According to a Wikipedia page that flashes briefly across the screen, Olivia went from struggling artist to celebrity socialite after the success of her book, before stepping out of the public eye to work on her foundation in Utah. She’s a fascinating character—demanding, gregarious, sexually predatory, or philanthropic, depending on who she’s with, and in what context. (She’s also, you might grumble, a little improbable, unless the children’s-book market really is lucrative enough to allow a single woman to buy a ski slope–adjacent mansion and essentially retire on the profits of a single work.)

Olivia clearly has designs on Joel, whom she invites to live in her barn, trading his manual labor for her “guidance” on his artwork. So she’s distressed to meet his girlfriend, Laura (Maya Kazan), but distracted when she later meets Eric (Frederick Weller), who, unbeknown to her, is a con man who’s been hired to make her fall in love with him so she’ll sell her home and land to her neighbor, Michael (James Ransone). As plans go, it’s an unwieldy one. But it works, until Eric falls in love with Olivia and tells her everything on New Year’s Eve, after which she’s brutally murdered. Both Joel and Eric, the show proffers, could be guilty. Eric is arrested and makes a plea deal; Joel moves to Louisiana with Laura. The case resurfaces a few years later when Eric’s sister, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), begins to reinvestigate what actually happened.

The trick of the series is that virtually all the information viewers need to make sense of it is right there in the first episode, but parceled in a way that makes it impossible to decipher. Michael and his morally compromised henchman Tom (Michael Cerveris) have, using new technology, detected large quantities of beryllium in the ground around Summit, including on Olivia’s land. They want to purchase it, but (maybe?) without tipping her off as to why. She declines to sell. Eric, hired by Michael, persuades Olivia to expand her ambitions for Mosaic and take it nationwide, which means she might not be so attached to her Summit home after all. But Eric’s genuine love for her thwarts Michael’s plan. Petra, uncovering all these details in her investigations, reveals that Michael killed Olivia out of rage, although Joel, who got blackout drunk that night, believes he’s guilty and confesses to the crime. The final shot is of Petra, visiting Mosaic in Summit, and staring at a picture of Olivia painted by an 11-year-old girl.

It’s a strange, unsatisfying end to a show that becomes much more formulaic in its second half but then ends abruptly and ambiguously. Did Joel go to prison? Did Michael? Is Eric still incarcerated? Was Petra really willing to trade her brother’s freedom for what she discovered? All of this is left uncertain. Instead, viewers are left, like Petra, contemplating a work of art that feels decidedly deceptive. The portrait at Mosaic is a testament both to Olivia’s narcissism (in a flashback recalled by Petra, Olivia declares that it’s the most beautiful piece of art she’s ever seen) and to her philanthropic efforts for children. Mosaic, similarly, speaks to Soderbergh’s endless ambition and considerable genius, but also to his habit of maddening audiences by giving them things they can’t understand. Writing about the director’s 2002 film Full Frontal, Roger Ebert declared that “there’s no use trying to unsort it all because Soderbergh hasn’t made it sortable,” and parts of Mosaic seem to merit the same critique.

What’s clear, though, is that the recurring references to art are deliberate. Even the title summarizes Soderbergh’s fractured method of storytelling, putting fragments of different things together into a larger whole. Petra, an art historian, once wrote a book on Italian Divisionists that she never finished, and though this morsel of biographical information doesn’t add much to the plot, it reveals a lot about what Mosaic was trying to do. Divisionism was partly pioneered by the artist Georges Seurat, who later refined his efforts into Pointillism. The thinking behind it was that by separating colors into individual dots of pigment, the overall effect is more striking to the eye than blending distinct shades would have been. Italian Divisionists in particular thought that manipulating the perception of light in art could transmit certain emotions to the observer.

Eric, during his first dinner with Olivia, exposes some of the methodology at work. “You’re like pieces of a mirror,” he tells her, referring to the fragments of her character that he’s aware of: the socialite, the life of the party, the artist, the philanthropist. But there’s something less obvious that he can also perceive about her, a kind of overarching loneliness that’s the sum of all the other elements. “That’s the thing everything else is covering up.” The scene is evidence of Eric’s considerable skill as a con man, but it also speaks to the artistic efforts Mosaic is engaging in—breaking up its story into pieces so that the overall effect is more intense.

As a whole, Mosaic alludes to other films the director’s made. The use of blue and orange filters to convey coolness and warmth in different climates recalls 2000’s Traffic, as does the layering together of different narrative threads to form a bigger picture. The structure of Mosaic, in which scenes are repeated and experienced through the perspective of different characters, feels akin to Schizopolis, a movie Soderbergh both directed and starred in, which debuted unexpectedly at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 to a baffled reception. It’s a bizarre, surreal work that seems inspired by Ionesco and Beckett in its nonlinear narrative and its nonsensical dialogue. “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing,” Soderbergh says to the camera in a prologue, “please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.”

This instruction can also apply to Mosaic, which only falls into place in the fifth and sixth episode, and makes infinitely more sense upon a second viewing. Characters come and go with minimal context or introduction. They do things that make absolutely no sense. They repeat words and phrases in different scenes, and their motivations are often opaque. After Soderbergh establishes that the story is jumping between time periods in the opening scenes, he abandons his title cards, leaving viewers to try and deduce what moment they’re watching.

This confusion seems deliberate. The point of Mosaic as an app was that users were supposed to bring their preexisting assumptions to the story, choosing which path they took, which in turn would provide a different interpretation of the story. Like ambiguous images of faces that are also candlesticks or ducks as well as rabbits, Mosaic tries to be a Rorschach test that encourages viewers to impose their own meaning on it. Whether it works or not is another, equally subjective judgment. What’s strange is that the show in some ways is the consummate murder mystery: It has a victim, two obvious suspects, and an amateur sleuth figuring it all out with the help of a well-meaning professional. The killer, in the end, is not who you probably thought it would be.

I was completely infuriated by Mosaic for the first four hours, until its story started to come together. The fragmentary narrative was too alienating and the tone too surreal. (There are some real highlights, notably Stone’s bravura performance, Ferrin’s unexpected role, and an incredible scene in which Ratray suffers a minor breakdown in the midst of so much chaos.) Watching it again, though, is a totally different experience. It’s clearer and more coherent. Which makes you wonder: If it had been those things in the first place, with a more traditional pathway into the story, would it have suffered? Or is the overall intensity of Mosaic due to the fact that, like Divisionism, you have to do the work yourself to put all the different pieces together?