May 2018

Arts & Letters

Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Unsane’

By Shane Danielsen

The prolific director hits his own limits with this experiment in technology

Given his omnivorous appetite for culture, it’s entirely possible that, while working at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2009, Steven Soderbergh heard of Nellie Melba. There was certainly some of the late dame’s irresoluteness to his announcement two years later that he was retiring from filmmaking, allegedly to devote himself to painting. He was fed up with the studios, he said. Too lumbering, too greedy. Worse, he claimed to be bored by the simple logistics of movie-making. (“When you reach the point where you’re like, ‘if I have to get into a van to do another scout I’m just going to shoot myself,’ it’s time to let somebody else who’s still excited about getting in the van, get in the van.”)

Like many others, I took this declaration with a large grain of salt. For all Soderbergh’s interest in art – and it’s a genuine interest: he’s a dedicated and creditable painter – his extremely clever mind inclines too naturally to sequential images to be entirely fulfilled by the more static satisfactions of a canvas. Indeed, just a few weeks later he began walking back the statement: suddenly it wasn’t a retirement but a “sabbatical” – a chance to take stock and, in doing so, to attempt to reconnect with the energy (or, perhaps more accurately, the fear of boredom) that had propelled him through 25 features in 24 years.

Sure enough, he soon began directing again, this time for television: 10 hour-long episodes of the 1900s-era hospital drama The Knick – incidentally, some of his finest work to date. A second season followed late in 2015, 10 more hours, and though he extolled the virtues of long-form TV storytelling (“so many details are possible, so much depth”), it seemed only a matter of time before he relented and returned to cinema. Logan Lucky was his first theatrical feature since the break; Unsane (in general release) is the second. (A third, High Flying Bird, is already shot and edited, and will be released later this year.)

Claire Foy (Elizabeth II on Netflix’s The Crown) plays Sawyer Valentini, a nervy, troubled young woman who has recently relocated to Pennsylvania in an attempt to elude a stalker (  Joshua Leonard) whose face she nevertheless continues to glimpse in the faces of others. Her new life is far from ideal: her boss is predatory, her workmates nosy. After admitting to a therapist that she has occasionally contemplated suicide, she finds herself committed against her will to a mental hospital – first for a 24-hour observation period, and then, after she freaks out and attacks a guard, for a seven-day stretch. Her protestations are brushed aside (as she’s constantly reminded, these are precisely the things a crazy person would say), and this Snake Pit scenario, of someone slipping deeper with every second into institutional quicksand, feels scarily, distressingly plausible.

The drama deepens with the discovery that the hospital’s management is pulling a scam: it’s in their financial interest to commit people, healthy or otherwise, and to hold them for as long as their insurers keep footing the bills. And for a brief moment, the film’s purpose seems to clarify: not a psychological drama, as we originally thought, but a satire in the style of Britannia Hospital – a takedown of America’s breathtakingly corrupt healthcare system.

Except then it shifts gears yet again, with the appearance of Sawyer’s actual stalker, who’s managed to get himself a job in the hospital (under a false name, natch) and who proceeds to drive her deeper into madness – and push the film towards something Gothic and, alas, more than a little absurd.

None of this, you sense, matters much to the filmmaker himself. Since the end of the first phase of his career, following the box-office failure of 1995’s The Underneath (a film he now disowns), Soderbergh has been driven by process rather than outcome, and by an almost pathological need to not repeat himself. The result is less a filmography than a succession of test studies, exercises in which he sets himself some particular goal, or imposes upon himself some specific restriction, and gets to work.

It was easy, for example, to mistake 2006’s The Good German for an awards-season prestige pic. All the requisite Oscar elements were in place, from the A-list cast (George Clooney, Cate Blanchett) to the recent historical setting (Germany in the aftermath of World War Two). In fact, it was a pure experiment in form, an attempt by the director to re-create the shooting conditions of 1940s-era Hollywood, complete with a filmic vocabulary dictated by the limits of that period’s equipment: wide-angle lenses, incandescent soundstage lighting, booms rather than radio mics. Dismissed on its release as a bloodless homage to films like Casablanca, it was instead something both less and more: a simulacrum. Exciting for its maker – a chance to step into the shoes of a Michael Curtiz or a Joseph L. Mankiewicz – but slightly less so for its audience.

Alternatively, he may choose to mimic a particular genre. Thus Ocean’s Eleven (2001) was his heist flick; Contagion (2011) his end-of-the-world movie; Side Effects (2013) his take on a Hitchcockian thriller. The Girlfriend Experience, his 2009 Sasha Grey vehicle, was partly a response to the American economic crisis, but mostly (it seemed to me) either an affectionate or passive-aggressive attempt by Soderbergh to remake his friend Lodge Kerrigan’s 1998 callgirl drama Claire Dolan. (That Kerrigan then went on to make a TV version of The Girlfriend Experience, alongside fellow director Amy Seimetz, only goes to show that artists have complicated relationships.)

This time, the challenge is a technical one: working from a screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, Soderbergh elected to shoot Unsane entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus. He’s hardly the first American filmmaker to attempt this: Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) was shot on the streets of Hollywood using three iPhone 5s devices. But it marks a further shortcut in an already remarkably abbreviated creative method. Soderbergh these days serves as his own cinematographer (under the nom de travail Peter Andrews, his father’s given names) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard, his mother’s maiden name). He works extremely quickly: filming only what he requires and cutting it together on his laptop at the end of each day’s shoot. As such, he’s drawn to technology that can further narrow the gap between capture and delivery.

It was often said of Max Ophüls, one of cinema’s most fluid and elegant shooters, that he “wrote with the camera”. Today, of course, the metaphor has become literal: one can hold the primary recording device comfortably in one’s hand. (Though, for the record, Soderbergh used a rudimentary rig with the iPhone attached.) Yet, on this occasion at least, the result illustrates the limits, not the potential, of the technology. Unsane’s images feel flat and dead. Shots are mostly underlit, and often defiantly, determinedly ugly. Camera moves are especially hit and miss: there are some lovely low-slung dollies down hospital hallways, reminiscent of The Shining, but pans and lateral tracking shots mostly look crappy. Soderbergh has augmented the device with various lenses – notably a fish-eye, which distorts images towards the edges of the frame – but much of the rest has the flattened, affectless quality of surveillance footage. There are some experiments with forced perspective, everyday objects like coffee cups looming in the foreground while the actors run their dialogue behind, reminiscent of mid-period Raúl Ruiz. Which is … fine. But so what?

Overall, the effect is a little like that of a magician who can’t resist telling you, mid trick, how he’s pulling off the illusion. With its smudged textures and optical distortions, the film is basically screaming CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS? I SHOT IT ON A PHONE, DUDE! It intends, presumably, to communicate something of the febrile intensity of a dissociative personality, or the floaty, detached feeling of being strung out on meds. The problem is, in committing so fully to his conceit, Soderbergh pays scant attention to the deficiencies of the script. And while the supersaturated palette of Tangerine also evoked the texture of its characters’ milieu – style, there as here, was placed at the service of subject – Baker’s film also presented us with two extremely distinctive, beguiling characters in Sin-Dee and Alexandra. So we soon forgot the novelty of the technique, and concentrated instead upon the story being told. In this one, lacking even a modicum of genuine interest in its protagonist (despite Foy’s best attempts, Sawyer remains a cipher throughout), we’re constantly being reminded that we’re watching a gimmick. A venture undertaken simply to see if it could be achieved.

Already vexed by his struggles with the industry, Soderbergh’s enthusiasm for filmmaking seemed to dwindle further after he completed the two-part, Spanish-language biopic Che in 2008. That film’s shoot was by all accounts an arduous one, and something in the struggle appears to have wounded its maker, disinclining him from anything that might demand so much. When he emerged from “retirement” with Logan Lucky – a work so emphatically minor it seemed specifically tailored to smother expectations – he announced that, henceforth, he was dedicating himself solely to pleasing himself. And what mattered most to him, now, was entertainment. Having fun. (“I would not have come out of retirement to do something ‘serious’ or ‘important’,” he declared. “No way.”)

I happen to think Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) is one of the great American movies of the past few decades – and that didn’t exactly announce itself as a Grave Artistic Statement. It would be thrilling to see him work at that level again, to attain the same fine balance of playfulness, subversion and craft. But that would require a deeper commitment than he’s willing, these days, to invest. Taking more time, perhaps even allowing others into the process. (It’s worth noting that Out of Sight was cut by Anne V. Coates, one of the greatest editors in film history.) Soderbergh has technique to burn, and a bristling, restless intellect. But in churning out one undemanding trifle after another, he risks becoming an American version of Michael Winterbottom, whose films might have been twice as good if he’d made half as many.

You only get to have it both ways for so long. Most of what audience there was for Logan Lucky (and it wasn’t a lot) went on the strength of its maker’s reputation. They weren’t interested in NASCAR, or in a bunch of hillbillies pulling off a heist – they just wanted to see the new Steven Soderbergh movie. One could say the same of Unsane, which would be a straight-to-video flick were it signed by any lesser director. But after these two films – not bad, but not great either – the value of that name may be diminishing. It’s good that he’s back. Now he just needs to make something worthy of his own extraordinary talent.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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