Review at the end.
Contagion’s a good film. Really good, in fact. It’s cold, unobtrusive, nicely paced and well-acted. It involves a spreading disease as well as spreading human paranoia. It’s anti-big-business, pro-little-guy, and a sweeping and frightening look at the small, teetering see-saw that our entire social fabric balances on.
I was trying to think of Soderbergh’s style after (and while) watching this film. The man’s got a pretty odd-ball filmography: Sex, Lies and Videotape, Schizopolis, Underneath, Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11, The Girlfriend Experience, Erin Brokovich, Che, Bubble… Is there aesthetic continuity between any of these? One way, whether useful or not is very much up for debate, to look at this is to start with the basics: shot selection and general mise-en-scene within that shot.
Contagion has a few remarkable characteristics from this end. First, it is largely high-key lighting, often with a sharp edge light. There is often something specular in frame that reflects the light just a bit. The color palette is dulled. The shots often remain fairly wide and, even when in close-up, are static and just off-angle. My friend recently commented that it feels like Soderbergh places his camera somewhere and just lets it run. Agreed.
More on his style. Scenes frequently begin in those aforementioned off-angle close-ups, kind of reeling us in to the possibility of a less detached sequence, and then 3 shots or so in move to the wide-shot, revealing the space. This space is often quite large, and immediately has the function of erasing any intimacy the opening close-ups may have felt. If that’s described poorly here’s an example from the film: close-up (shoulders-up) of a man in a containment suit. Close-up of a woman in a containment suit. Wide-shot of the huge containment room they are in, where man and woman now both feel small. That the space is necessarily sterile doesn’t hurt. The wide-shot coming in after the close-ups is technique enough to leave us with that taste in our mouths. Rather than start away and end up close we start close and end up away. We’re backing away from the humanness.
A last shot worth noting, and one that I think is most prevalent in his work, is the wide or medium-wide-shot, where something is in sharp focus in the foreground, and something, usually a moving and narratively important person, is in soft focus in the background.
It’s pretty difficult to say how all of this adds up, outside of the buzz words that have been used for this film already: cold, detached, paranoid, arm’s length, unobtrusive, voyeuristic, clinical, etc. It’s the evolution that’s interesting to me. Starting out with his famous Sex, Lies and Videotape, the above adjectives were largely already in place thanks to the “videotape” portion of the film. Underneath features a changing color spectrum, The Limey has its jump cuts and non-linear structure, The Good German’s over-clean black and white photography, The Informant!’s more documentary-styled camera.
Outside of some of his larger pictures (the Ocean’s films, Erin Brokovich, Traffic) all of these techniques, in some way or another, function to a) alienate the viewer by either placing the subject matter in a less-than-real world and/or timeline, b) favor form over content, at least in the sense of experimental form over warm character connections, and c) take on some kind of probing or investigative form (where non-linear structure reveals gradually, black/white photography is newsreel-esque, and even the lightly noir-ish color schema of Underneath is psychologically relevant).
The furthest that Soderbergh has pushed this are some of his most recent films: Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience and Contagion. I think that video (rather than film…and embracing the video look rather than trying to mimic film) has much to do with this as well. That slightly jumpy feel, the cleaner look, the security camera sense…
Anyway. Here’s more on the film itself, including some plot: