Every now and again, I watch the first half of Side Effects and somewhat wistfully pretend it was a good movie. All the potential for it is there. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) descends into a suicidal depression following her husband’s return from prison for insider trading. When she attempts suicide – twice – her psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) reluctantly prescribes a new miracle drug called Ablixa, whose unfortunate tendency to induce sleepwalking leads Emily to stab her husband to death while she sleeps. The consequences of this drag Emily and Jonathan down into the deep water between the Scylla and Charbydis of institutionalisation and prison, where proof that Ablixa was responsible for the murder becomes the only thing that will save both Emily’s sanity and Jonathan’s all-but-destroyed reputation.
Rooney Mara, who dazzled us so spectacularly in the otherwise-mediocre The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is stunning in this role. Her simultaneously deadpan and stricken face realistically embodies the hunted, yet empty look of depression; and the deep-set hysteria and sluggishness that it inflicts on the human form are evocatively conveyed in the huskiness of her voice and the freneticism of her movements. Some aspects of the script are equally good at conveying what depression can feel like and look like: the constant, torturing knowledge that if things do get better, they’ll almost certainly get bad again at some point in the future; the aversion to standing up because it hurts too much; the way your head feels too heavy for your neck and always makes you want to lean it back against something; the way that death can seem a friend, or at least a pleasant alternative; how things get lost on the way from your brain to your mouth; how you constantly feel like you’re running from something (but never towards something) and how much you want to punch out the teeth of people who claim (meaning well, of course), that they have a fucking clue what you’re going through and presume to give you advice on how to cope. All the pieces are in place for a dark, but cathartic piece of art-house cinema about a woman overcoming the worst thing that this disease can offer a person: having to suffer it while dealing with the loss of someone you love and knowing, all the while, that you’re the one who killed them.
What we get instead is a descent into far-fetched lunacy when it emerges that Emily isn’t sick at all and is conspiring with her lover and former therapist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta Jones) to make a killing off Ablixa stocks, which have plummeted since the murder. It’s quite literally a case of ‘I’m a therapist, so I’ll teach you how to be depressed; your husband is all into insider trading, so you can teach me that; we’ll make a lot of money and have lots of sex; and you get to kill the son of a bitch who ruined your life into the bargain.’ Some people call this a clever twist. I call it stigmatising a disease that already has enough of a stigma attached to it in the first place. Sure, there is no such thing as the right not to be offended, and it says clearly in the film that Victoria teaching Emily ‘how to be depressed’ is a long and torturous process. But let’s think about the connection between depression and pretending that still exists in the consciousness of the vast majority of people today; and the implications that a film like this has for this connection.
We live in a society in which depression is still widely considered an inadequate excuse for not attending work, a function, a meeting or a family gathering. Often the sufferer will be told to cheer up, to get a grip on themselves and to stop being so full of nonsense. It will sometimes be whispered behind the sufferer’s back that their depression is a synonym for laziness, an excuse to get out of something, or a form of attention-seeking or hypochondria. And in many cases, and this is far and away the worst part of the problem, the sufferer will often believe this themselves, and will subject themselves to the most horrifying forms of mental torture by brazening out whatever hellish occasion they need to attend regardless of how anguished, despairing, frail and exhausted they feel. Many will even manage (somehow) to pretend that everything’s fine in order to save face with other people and with themselves; and none but the most attentive observer will notice that anything’s wrong with them at all.
Millions of people with depression do this kind of pretending all day every day: we pretend for spouses, for parents, for children, for colleagues, for employees, and for ourselves. We even do it when things get desperate enough for us to call in sick or to stay home because the thought of leaving the house, or even the bed, seems like the equivalent of an apocalypse of the soul. So we lie and say we’ve got the flu or a migraine, because telling the truth exposes us to the infinite variations on ‘cheer up and get a grip’ that are described above. My psychiatrist once said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: ‘If a diabetic collapsed in front of you, would you tell them to cheer up and stop being pathetic? Of course you wouldn’t. So why do people do the same thing with depression? Depression is a disease, just like diabetes is a disease.’ She shocked me, because this very simple, very sensible thought about my own condition had never occurred to me. I don’t for a moment claim to speak for every sufferer of depression, but if this doesn’t even enter the head of someone suffering from depression, then movies like Side Effects aren’t going to generate a whole lot of understanding or empathy from those who do not suffer from it. In a climate in which the links between depression and ‘faking it’ or ‘pretending’ are probably stronger than they ever were, films like Side Effects, that portray depression as something that can be taught and expertly pretended and transform depression into a deception that can be used by a pair of con artists, encourage the myth, however small and careless such encouragement might be. They ensure that the wheel of ‘you’re a hypochondriac ’, ‘cheer up and ‘you’re pretending’ keeps right on turning with no end in sight.
Millions of depressed people are indeed pretending every day of their lives. But we’re not pretending to be sick; we’re pretending to be fine. Perhaps someone should make a movie about that.