Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Steven Soderbergh has made some interesting films about sexual relationships, from Sex, Lies and Videotape to Magic Mike, but Side Effects is a psychological thriller that doesn’t seem to be motivated by lust until you reach the end. That’s when you find out Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones were partners in crime and in the bedroom.
Didn’t get that from the trailer? Of course this is all a big twist revealed at the end of the film, a big Sapphic reveal because Hollywood still treats relationships between two people of the same sex as shocking and something we didn’t see coming. And it’s often accompanied by these queer pairs as having done bad, bad things, as is the case in Side Effects. Mara plays Emily, a young woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) was just released from prison after four years for insider trading. But the day after he returns home, Emily purposely crashes her car into a parking garage wall, prompting her to visit a hospital where the shrink on staff, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), begins to talk to her about her depression. Emily promises him it was a freak accident and that she will visit his office regularly if he just lets her go home her husband. He obliges, and sees Emily several times as well as calling her former therapist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones) to find out she’s had similar issues before. Dr. Siebert recommends an anti-depressant called Ablixa. But after taking Ablixa for a short time, Emily begins to sleepwalk and murders her husband during an episode.
Emily is acquitted and instead sent to a mental hospital, but she doesn’t take any pharmaceuticals and seems to be recovering well. Meanwhile Dr. Banks’s life is falling apart. His partners kick him out of his practice, he’s dropped from a lucrative drug trial and his wife is stressed about their financial situation. He can’t seem to figure out how he’s ended up as the person at fault for the entire situation, prescribing a drug he had no experience with and begins to do some investigating. He finds that none other than Dr. Victoria Siebert has written papers and done research on Ablixa, finding that sleepwalking indeed occurs with the drug. Dr. Banks is able to take that thread and unravel the rest until he finally confronts Emily and threatens to put her through some harsh mental and physical therapy unless she tells him the truth. Knowing she can’t be charged for the same crime twice, she obliges.
“She always liked girls,” Emily says about Dr. Siebert, “she just never found one she liked as much as me.” Emily says her therapist was lonely, and as she tells the story of their relationship, we see a montage of her touching herself on Dr. Siebert’s couch, a sensual kiss they share, some touching of their bodies in a low-lit room. There isn’t any love expressed; it’s pure lust and greed, as Emily told Dr. Siebert all she knew about insider trading and her doctor taught her about drugs, side effects and how all of these things could make them rich and happy, if only Emily could convincingly kill her husband and get away with it. And she did, at first, anyway. If Dr. Banks wouldn’t have prodded, Emily would have been released after improvements at the mental hospital, the blame following the drug and the person who prescribed it instead of the woman who stabbed her husband several times with a kitchen knife.
I won’t spoil the ending completely, but suffice to say Emily and Victoria are not a beautiful portrait of women in love. In fact, they are never on screen together except in the montage at the end of the film or flashback scenarios. Victoria is a cold, snide woman, commanding and beautiful, for sure, but not likable in the least. Emily is pretty and seems inexplicably troubled in the beginning, but seems so lucky to be surrounded by love from her husband and his family. His white collar crime feels meaningless, especially in contrast to the other major crime revealed at the end. In one brief scene, Emily is looking out the window of her room at the mental ward and smiles at the sight of Victoria heading inside. But when she’s stopped by Dr. Banks and turns around to leave after a brief altercation, Emily is crestfallen. Unfortunately that seems to be motivated more by the idea of personal safety and freedom than love for her former therapist and lover.
Side Effects reminded me of Love Crime, the French original that came out in 2011 but is being remade for American audiences and will be released this year. The queer women at center of both films are using their female partners to get what they want. There isn’t love involved as much as fleeting pleasure. The problem with that is someone who loves you for only a moment will stay faithful and trustworthy for that same amount of time and not a minute longer.
Side Effects is in theaters now.