Steven Soderbergh says he wants to do fun films towards the end of his career and his latest, the quirky thriller Side Effects, is conclusive proof of his leanings

Watching Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, one fervently hopes the director is only taking a sabbatical and not quitting films all together. The psychological thriller is such fun, so elegantly smart and takes you to that special happy place where great books, movies and music reside, that you just want to hug yourself with counterfeited glee.

Screened in the competition section of the 63rd Berlinale, Side Effects starts with the story of Emily, a suicidal young woman.

Things don’t get better for Emily even after her husband, Martin, who was in prison for insider trading, returns home. In fact they get worse and she attempts suicide. Dr. Banks is the psychiatrist assigned to care for Emily. He consults with Dr. Victoria who Emily was seeing before she lost her medical insurance. Martin is found stabbed to death at his home, and all evidence points to Emily who has no memory of what has happened.

Banks finds his life unravelling — he is held responsible, as one of the drugs he prescribed for Emily is known to cause sleep walking. Bent on getting to the truth of the matter and clearing his name, Banks uncovers a can of worms involving pharmaceuticals, mental illness, doctors and the law. The movie constantly keeps us off kilter.

You think you know what is coming and then you are repeatedly thrown a big, fat googly. Though one expects thrillers to have many twisty turns, Side Effects surprises us repeatedly.

At the press conference, Soderbergh said the greatest challenge for him was “finding the right tone for the first 35 to 40 minutes, the first act so to speak.” Jude Law, who played Dr. Banks said the toughest thing for him was “trying to convince myself that I could play a psychiatrist authentically!”

Rooney Mara, who we last saw as the girl with the dragon tattoo, plays the mysterious broken flower Emily. She said “Steven made the whole thing so easy, there were no challenges at all.” Talking about thrillers, Soderbergh said: “the reason Hitchcock films are relevant and fun is not only because of the innovations but also because they are all about guilt, which is good movie material. Each act of Side Effects is a different film. There are different points of view. First you think it is Emily’s story, then midway it becomes Banks’ story.”

Scott Z. Burns who has collaborated with Soderbergh on The Informant and Contagion said he has been working on this story for over ten years now. The lesbian track in the movie also goes with the subversive tone of the film, Burns commented.

When asked about why he chose to make a genre film, Soderbergh commented: “I liked the idea of making a thriller in the twilight of my career. (oh no!) Coming out of Che I wanted to do something fun.”

The auteur (he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his debut film when he was 26, he can definitely be called an auteur) said he “always tried to approach a film that would destroy all that went before. I wanted to make the film very lean, only muscle. I restricted myself to working in a simple way.”

Law said it is rare to get a “lean character” and he owes his performance to getting the right part at the right time and working with the right people. The dashing actor said Banks is an “interesting character with layers to him that are revealed slowly. He is ambitious, which is probably why he moved from UK to US.”

In preparation for his role, Law, who insists he doesn’t even take headache pills, said he met doctors and patients and studied advertising for psychiatric drugs. “Our need for shortcuts has become a universal problem.”

Burns said the theme of subversion starts right from the title, but one side effect cinema buffs definitely do not want is the permanent exit of the talented Mr. Soderbergh!

The writer was in Berlin at the invitation of Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan