The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Contagion

Written by Pete Falconer.

Photo from the article There is a short scene in Contagion that highlights the distinctive stylistic choices made in the film and also hints at an alternative direction that might have been taken. Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), who has been working on identifying the virus that we have seen spreading across the world, sits in a café and watches the people around him. We see them eating and drinking, touching objects and one another. Dr. Sussman looks on in horror at all the ordinary actions and gestures that could potentially transmit the disease.

These processes could have easily been a major focus for the movie. A different director, like Darren Aronofsky, with his interest in isolating and amplifying individual physical details, could have built the whole film around them. There is certainly great potential in the kind of material that Contagion deals in for creating tension and suspense through heightened germ-phobic paranoia.

However, as I noted in my short review, Steven Soderbergh takes a different approach. In the café scene, the sudden emphasis on the different ways that the virus could pass from person to person is carefully framed in relation Dr. Sussman’s personal point of view. His reaction shots provide the context for the scene, inflecting it with the limitations and preoccupations of an individual perspective. This perspective is situated among the many others that we see throughout the movie - Dr. Sussman is a fairly prominent character, but not one that we spend a large amount of time with. Our relationship with the doctor, as established by the film, is never close enough for his point of view to seem especially privileged or sympathetic. Other characters seem to respect him enough for us to probably accept his status as an expert, but his reaction in the café seems more visceral than scientific, as suggested by the pace of the editing and particularly by the way that Elliott Gould screws up his face in disgust. We are not led to believe that Dr. Sussman’s fears are anything but legitimate, but we are definitely encouraged to observe his reaction, rather than to share it.


The more overtly subjective sequences that we see in the film are contained in a similar manner. We are offered a small number of shots from the feverish points of view of Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Li Fai (Chui Tien-you), two of the first people to be infected with the virus. These shots simulate the haze of delirium through intensified colours, distorted focus and blurred motion. Once again, these moments are placed within the film’s wider approach - its diffuse perspective, multiple storylines and ensemble cast. In this context, these brief instances of heightened stylisation seem like one viewpoint among many. They are treated as data out of which we can form our impressions, rather than as invitations to participate more directly or extensively in an imagined experience of the epidemic.

That we are given even a fleeting view through the eyes of two sick characters is a clear indication of the film’s commitment to showing us more than any individual within it could possibly see. This is taken to its logical conclusion at the end of the film, where we are shown precisely how the virus jumped from species to species - from bats to pigs, and then finally human beings - in the first place. This is not something that anyone within the world of the film would ever be able to find out.


However, we are only presented with this final revelation at the end of the movie. Although ours is a privileged view on the world in which the story takes place, we are granted our access in a gradual and piecemeal fashion. As I suggested in the review, this allows us to experience a kind of tense uncertainty comparable to, but distinct from, that felt by the characters. Another important effect of this strict control of narrative information is that it encourages us to suspend judgement on many of the characters and situations we see, at least until we know more about them later on.

This has particularly interesting consequences in relation to Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). We see Krumwiede claim that a homeopathic remedy, derived from the shrub forsythia, is effective against the epidemic. We see him apparently recover from the disease after taking this remedy. However, it becomes clear by the end of the movie that Krumwiede was never infected with the virus and was championing a quack cure in order to make money by manipulating investments. Krumwiede seems brash and annoying from the outset, and the claims he makes seem dubious, but the extent of his deception is only gradually revealed. This helps to temper the sense of superiority that the film’s detached perspective could potentially be seen to promote. We cannot immediately put Krumwiede into the category of “villain”, nor can we so easily label the people he deceives - who we see trampling over one another in a pharmacy where supplies of forsythia are running low - as gullible dupes. The presentation of the Krumwiede strand to the story is consistent with the general attitude that the film encourages us to adopt. We are asked to examine and compare the different reactions and perspectives that are presented to us. For this to happen, we cannot be given the opportunity to endorse or dismiss what we see straight away.


The overall perspective that the film promotes also allows it to avoid making spurious or simplistic causal connections. Beth Emhoff is infected with the virus while on a business trip to Hong Kong. On the same trip, she cheats on her husband with an old boyfriend in Chicago. The film makes no attempt to suggest any connection between these incidents (beyond the obvious) - we are not encouraged to regard Beth’s illness and death as a literal or symbolic consequence of her infidelity. This is a laudable example of the way that the construction of the movie allows it to avoid easy moral judgements. There are, of course, some concessions to melodrama. The major medical breakthroughs that occur in the film do not come from careful scientific research but from the actions of maverick individual doctors acting in defiance of orders and protocols. These moments, however, do help to sustain a basic level of emotional involvement, without which the film might have difficulty keeping us interested.

The detached, analytical style that we see in Contagion allows the movie to bring out a number of the complexities within its subject matter. Of course, this approach is unlikely to endear the film to everyone. Indeed, it would be possible to argue (with some justification) that a movie concerned with human tragedy on such a large scale would benefit from a more compassionate perspective. Such a perspective, however, would probably necessitate the loss of many of this film’s best features - its breadth, its restraint and its meticulous construction.

This Alternate Take was published on November 16, 2011.

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