' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Contagion

Monday, March 16, 2020

Some Drivel On...Contagion

“It’s an Irwin Allen movie, at the end of the day,” Mr. Soderbergh told Dennis Lim of The New York Times in 2011 about his then upcoming film “Contagion.” “We’re doing exactly what he did, using a lot of movie stars and trying to scare a lot of people.” Except that one paragraph before expressing this sentiment, Soderbergh deemed his work “an ultrarealistic film about a pandemic, and that’s the key phrase.” He continued: “We were looking for something that was unsettling because of the banality of the transmission. In a weird way, the less you trump it up” – WOAH!!!!! – “the more unsettling it becomes.” Those two readings of his film don’t quite jibe. “Contagion”, in rewatching it, like most of America is rewatching it, proved not to be anything like an Irwin Allen movie – “The Global Pandemic”, or something. There are a lot of movie stars, yes, but Allen’s m.o. was, like his acolyte Roland Emmerich, long, melodramatic wind-ups, bringing all the characters on stage and setting up their personal backstories, threading each one through the ensuing disaster and then, finally, rendering that disaster with as many fireworks as finesse.

In “Contagion”, Soderbergh essentially cuts to the pandemic already in progress with a Day 2 title card over an image of Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), patient zero, already looking at death’s door as she rummages around in a bowl of cocktail peanuts, lingered on in close-up like Frankenheimer lingered on the tin cup in “Ronin” before DeNiro ambushes Skarsgård with the coffee percolating within. Sure enough, a couple scenes later Beth is dead and her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), listens to a doctor cruelly explain grief counselors can help find “resolution” when he can’t even tell Mitch what killed her. “What happened to her?!” Mitch demands. Getting no response, he helplessly hollers again: “What happened to her?!”

It could have been Damon’s “I didn’t kill my wife!” You know, confused by the confusion, he sets out to uncover what happened to Beth and discovers a cure for the disease along the way, ordinary man cosplaying as hero. But Soderbergh isn’t playing by arcane rules, which is aesthetically comforting and literally, in this moment, here (looks at watch: eight-twenty eight a.m. central standard time), kind of terrifying. When Marion Cotillard’s WHO expert, Dr. Leonora Orantes, is dispatched to trace the virus’s origins, she strides through an airport terminal in long shot with a cocksure smile, a hero shot if there ever was one. Rather than get to the bottom of things, though, she winds up kidnapped and essentially held for ransom until a vaccine is found. As C.D.C. Inspection Officer Erin Mears, meanwhile, Kate Winslet plays the part galled but determined to keep hacking through red tape even as she simultaneously lets out so much air when the character wakes up in a hotel sick and knowing what that means. Erin isn’t sainted, she’s just fucked.

Indeed, this is why as the movie opens on Beth, the tone of her phone conversation implying that she’s having an affair, which will be made explicit later. That doesn’t so much mean she’s punished for her sin when she is subsequently killed off so much as it signals Soderbergh skewering the rigid, prehistoric notion of what defines a movie rooting interest. You only wish he was a little more creative where the predominant villain was concerned. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger, espouses blatant mistrust of the government and peddling a cure that we are not quite sure he believes is the real thing or not or just a means to enhance his brand as everything goes to hell. Though Soderbergh flouts his suspicion of the state by consistently returning to a C.D.C. research scientist (Jennifer Ehle) toiling away for a cure, he never demonstrates how or even if Krumwiede’s disinformation spreads. He’s just eating the sins for all the unseen know-nothings convinced they know everything.

Then again, not connecting Krumwiede to the panicking masses underlines the character’s self-interest which underlines just how little people mean in the grand scheme of “Contagion” anyway, mercilessly left by the wayside. The characters might struggle to contain and understand the virus but its relentless spread makes sense to us because of how deftly Soderbergh toggles from place to place and visually traces its otherwise unseeable line from person to person, just like that [snaps finger], his own narrative presentation proving “as ruthlessly effective as the malady at its cool, cool center,” as Manohla Dargis astutely wrote for The New York Times, cutting to the heart of how Soderbergh does not simply recount the story of a pandemic but embodies its own sense of clinical, swift devastation. There comes a moment when Mitch sits down and cries, which is less notable for the tears themselves then when they happen in the movie – that is, at the end. It happens so fast, he doesn’t know what hit him. I don’t remember what I thought of that scene in 2011; right now, I could relate.

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