Let’s face it: Dr. Barbara Wolff, the main subject of the gripping medical drama Barbara, is not a people person. More often than not, she’s making that grimace I like to call “wet kitty look.” Personality wise, the term “strong coffee” comes to mind. “If she were six, you’d say she’s sulky,” comments a character. But this is just a very hard shell concealing a fascinating, independent-minded woman.
These, I’m afraid, are qualities that will get you in trouble in East Germany during the Stasi regime. The year is 1980, and Dr. Wolff, who left behind a high-profile position at a Berlin hospital, has been reassigned to a small-town clinic in the picturesque countryside. Her new colleagues whisper about a prison sentence among themselves. Okay, so she’s a pariah, but why? Writer-director Christian Petzold refuses to spell out the details. Instead, he focuses on the tentative bond that forms between Babs (Nina Hoss) and André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the physician who notices that she’s actually quite radiant when she’s not making the face.
All right, you’d probably be in a sour mood if, like Dr. Wolff, you were living in a drab apartment that looks more like a halfway house. And you probably wouldn’t be a ball of sunshine if government agents knocked on your door, looked through your belongings and performed random body cavity searches on you. But such are the indignities Petzold’s heroine endures on a regular basis. The town’s provincial charm, vividly captured by cinematographer Hans Fromm, serves as ironic counterpoint to Barbara’s frazzled state of mind.
André, friendly and compassionate, is Barbara’s polar opposite, but as we eventually find out, he also has his own secrets. The plot thickens when Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a young woman suffering from meningitis, is admitted into the doctors’ care. The government wants to seize her and throw her into an extermination camp after she recuperates for reasons that soon become evident, and this is where Barbara’s maternal instincts kick in…and when Petzold starts methodically turning the screws on his audience. Barbara might be a character study, but it unfolds with the tightly wound efficacy of a thriller. Despite the film’s tranquil setting, there’s a tension in the air that remains there like a stubborn fog.
Hoss, Petzold’s muse, delivers a nuanced, richly layered portrait of a woman who’s been screwed over by a repressive government and is forced to make an incredibly difficult choice. Zehrfeld, a relative newcomer, looks like the love child of Russell Crowe and Atonement‘s James McAvoy. The warmth with which he imbues André makes his puppy-dog fixation on Barbara that much more disarming. Petzold has taken elements from the Cold War era and turned them into a ripping yarn that grabs you from the get-go and never hits a false note. Barbara was Germany’s entry for this year’s Foreign Language Feature Oscar, and it’s a better contender than some of the movies that actually made it to the final shortlist. (Yes, A Royal Affair, I’m looking in your direction.)
There aren’t any gotcha moments in Barbara, just assured, straightforward storytelling. Side Effects, on the other hand, revels in pulling out the rug from under you. Again and again. The psychological thriller is reportedly Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical release before his purported retirement from filmmaking. (He also has Behind the Candelabra, a Liberace biopic, airing on HBO later this year.) It’s just as well. Not that his last several efforts (Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike) have been awful, exactly. It just feels like there’s an emotional vacuum that, at least for me, has prevented me from connecting to his movies in the same way I responded to his best work (King of the Hill, The Limey).
For the first hour or so, however, Side Effects is an engaging look at the ways clinical depression ruins lives. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) ought to feel happy. Her strapping hubby Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison, where he was locked away four years for insider trading. She can pick up her marriage where it left off. And yet thoughts of suicide won’t go away. After Emily rams her car into a brick wall like a crash test dummy, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a shrink at her hospital, reluctantly lets her go after she promises to visit him. The severity of her behavior is resistant to the usual antidepressants, so Banks takes a gamble with Alixa, a new drug that, as Emily’s pharmacist warns, has been known to have unpredictable side effects. (Blink and you’ll miss Soderbergh’s pal Julia Roberts on a subway platform ad for the drug.)
This is all you’re going to get out of me plot wise. My advice: If you’re planning to go see Side Effects, skip the ad campaigns, and cover your ears if you hear anyone discussing it. That said, I didn’t find it all that difficult to unlock the secrets in Scott Z. Burns overeager screenplay. If anything, the ensuing sleight-of-hand antics bring to mind Wild Things, a movie that embraced its lurid, T & A noir trappings without diluting them in a cerebral veneer of good taste like Soderbergh does here. (And Wild Things also featured Bill Murray as a shameless, ambulance-chasing lawyer. Side Effects has no such comic relief, unless you count Catherine Zeta-Jones having too much fun as Emily’s previous therapist.)
Side Effects would have actually worked so much better if we actually gave a damn about Emily and Dr. Banks, but the movie eventually falls prey to the Contagion effect. In that global-pandemic thriller, we weren’t looking at casualties of a deadly virus so much as staring at specimens in Soderbergh’s petri dish. The deceitful players in Side Effects are similarly reduced to pawns in an elaborate chess game. You can tell Soderbergh’s enjoying himself a little more than usual spinning his wheels this time around, but did he have to deprive his characters of their humanity in the process?
Side Effects begins taking plot twist-starved moviegoers’ temperatures in wide release beginning this Friday. That same day, Barbara starts taking viewers at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com) and the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com) behind the Iron Curtain.