“Contagion,” Katie and Cotillard: Disfiguring the Oscars

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

In the manner of all those pedantic jerks you’ve already been reading and despising for three weeks, I will begin by telling you what I’m not talking about. This column is not about the lovely Kate Winslet, three-time champion of Glamour Magazine’s “50 Most Glam” list (2009, 2010, 2011), mother of two, outspoken body-image advocate. Nor is it about the lovely Marion Cotillard, whose beauty, grace and, oh, Frenchness have secured her a seemingly endless stream of roles as the beautiful, graceful Frenchwoman in every American movie requiring such a role. And, post-2007 (when Mme Cotillard won her Oscar), there has been an anomalously high number of roles for beautiful, graceful Frenchwomen. Go figure.

No, this column is not about loveliness, though it is about celebrity and therefore about Kate Winslet, who many consider the best actress of her age. (She’s not — Tilda Swinton is the best actress of her age).

Mostly, however, this column is about Steven Soderbergh’s more-than-brilliant “Contagion,” which came out in theatres last Friday and articulates, maybe despite itself, the Way that Modern Movies Work. A contemplation on global dissemination, resistance, and control, Contagion evokes the reality of filmmaking in the Internet Age better than any art flick, academic treatise, or How-To Manual heretofore conceived or received.

Plus, it’s just so much fun. Unless you are radically germaphobic (actually, scratch that: the movie’s even more enjoyable if you are — I speak from experience, having avoided handshakes and doorknobs for five days now) you should stop reading this column and trot off to the multiplex. Now.

The plot is straightforward enough: Gwyneth Paltrow acquires a mysterious new virus in Beijing, returns to her husband Matt Damon in Minnesota via Chicago. Along the way, she touches credit cards, hands, food, and gambling chips, wreaking immunological havoc wherever she goes and instigating a global pandemic. Enter Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard, both epidemiologists, to investigate the virus’s origins and endless spread. Various scientists, politicians, military personnel, and journalists (one nefarious blogger, played with this wonky calculated anarchism by Jude Law) enter the fray.

Shit goes down. It’s all handled with an eye for both institutions and ethos, cleverly balancing the precariousness of global interconnectedness with some really affecting examinations of love during crisis. It’s good.

Now, a brief aside: it is convention when writing film criticism to list actors by their character-name, not by their real name. It would be absurd to say, for example, that Ray explores Jamie Foxx’s struggles with blindness and morphine addiction.

However, I chose to keep real names in the summary 2.5 paragraphs ago because contagion and celebrity co-implicate. There are four (that’s right, four) Oscar-winners in “Contagion,” and two of them are dead thirty minutes into the movie. This is weird. None of them function as unambiguous protagonist, this being a movie about global concerns — but Damon comes closest.

It’s common to have past Oscar-winners in tiny parts, cynically billing a movie with a recognizable name to increase marketability, and I’m sure that Soderbergh’s casting decisions had more than a little to do with money-making. But it’s uncommon to have so many Oscar-winners in a movie that fundamentally atomizes human beings, that generally (and commendably) privileges institutions over emotions. Again, two of our Oscar-winners are in body bags long before the credits roll.

So, “Contagion” is critically fascinating in two ways. First, it establishes — I think intentionally — disease as a metaphor for the dispersion and control of knowledge within a hypermediated society. It’s significant that Jude Law’s amoral blogger is a megalomaniac whose version of “telling the truth” is, within the logic of the film, tantamount to mass-murder.

Second, it links — I think unintentionally — disease and the Oscars. Or at least, abjection and the Oscars. Here’s where things get interesting. Let’s talk about the unlovely Kate Winslet. Thwarted constantly by the Academy, nominated five times (Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children) and winning zilch, she pulled out the big guns in 2008 with The Reader. In this film, which I haven’t seen, Winslet plays an illiterate Nazi guard sexually involved with a minor. Those who watch “Extras” know that Ricky Gervais and Winslet parodied the Nazi-Oscar binary in 2005, Winslet’s fictionalized version of herself unselfconsciously declaiming that nothing’s safer come awards season than the Holocaust.

Now, finally, a thesis-ish-thing-of-sorts-with-caveats: the Academy of Motion Pictures has recently been rewarding women for effecting extreme dissonance between on-screen and off-screen personas, through conduct or physical appearance, but especially both. And I think for those savvier than I, there’s ample room here for a political critique of embodiment and celebrity, or perhaps better put: the embodiment of celebrity. Because there’s nothing more unnerving than juxtaposing images of Natalie Portman’s masochistic, ankle-cracking, toe-tearing, thorn-sprouting figuration of psychosexual paranoia in Black Swan, and soft-lighted images of her walking red carpets in flowing, off-white designer maternity gowns — she literally glows. This is an extreme example, but others follow: Charlize Theron in Monster, Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, and Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose each won Oscars for arguably self-punishing roles that highlight radical dissonance between on-screen and off-screen imagery (Swank’s performance in Boys Don’t Cry deserves an infinitely more nuanced analytical framework, and I’m fast approaching my word limit).

But hang on a moment, the skeptical reader demands: is this really a trend? And is it really recent? And is it really gendered? And, wait, isn’t that just acting? Are you saying anything at all?

For the skeptics, here’s thesis-ish-thing version 2.0: not only are women winning awards for what often seems like self-punishment and self-displacement (especially Black Swan, but there’s really nothing novel about this) — I speculate that contemporary women’s celebrity is actually constructed around this dissonance.

A friend of mine shared an article with me this summer, in which sports commentator Bill Simmons claims there to be one, and only one, True Movie Star in all of Hollywood: one absolutely and endlessly bankable actor. No one else, Simmons says, deserves the title. This unerring überstar is Will Smith, who — according to Simmons — always plays himself, thereby never intimidating or disorienting his fanbase.

I think that Mr. Simmons is dead-wrong, or at least that the stakes are higher, more complex, and more latently misogynist for actresses. Celebrity status is actually a constellation of two competing sets of imagery, both of which are necessarily consumed by fans. Contagion, again despite itself, invokes the aesthetic and political rules of the game (the game being Gender and Hollywood). And the rules are symptomatically rigged.

Nolan is a senior. You can reach him at ngear1@swarthmore.edu.

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