Pick of the Week: Sex, Lies, & Videotape
Sex, Lies, & Videotape (1989) tells the story of four individuals with tangled sex lives. In his feature directorial debut, Steven Soderbergh demonstrates a mastery of his craft well beyond his years, pulling together an outstanding cast and an intelligent script for a nuanced, mature film about neurosis and human sexuality.
Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape, revolves around the lives of four individuals living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana: John Mulaney (Peter Gallagher), Ann Bishop Mulaney (Andie MacDowell), Cynthia Bishop, and Graham Dalton. John is a philandering lawyer who is having an affair with his wife Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Ann claims to not want sex anymore, being excessively concerned about issues like ‘what must happen to the garbage that we throw out?’, ‘what about the poor, starving children?’, concerns which she reveals to her therapist in great detail. John’s old college friend, Graham (James Spader) comes to visit the couple and throws them off with his ‘brutal honesty,’ especially about the fact that he is impotent and the only way he can have some physical satisfaction is by videotaping women talking about sex and their sexual encounters. With his arrival, everyone’s deceptions and hypocrisies come bubbling up to the surface.
Intelligently written and a startling debut from a 29-year old Soderbergh, who wrote it in a span of eight days during a trip to Los Angeles, the film is a heady mix of voyeurism, adultery, and masturbation; with 80s technology. Although Graham brings everyone’s lies to the forefront, he is himself, hardly a saint. With a gentleness that seems to border on a self-imposed ‘honest’ persona, his persuasion of the women he wants to talk to his camera is sly. Once a pathological liar, Dalton has spent the last 9 years videotaping different women about their sexual encounters, distancing himself from the person with his camera as his barrier. This is why even though John and Cynthia’s steamy romps insinuate betrayal later in the film, it’s Graham that the audience is more interested in.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape is remarkably funny in places, especially during the sequences when Ann talks about a new concern every week, or when Cynthia describes the first time she saw a penis for Graham’s camera (“I thought it would be smooth, like a test tube”), or when Graham confesses to Ann that he is impotent, which is funny even in 2020, because we are still not used to such untempered honesty when it comes to speaking about sex, whether on or off-screen. The film's humour fulfils that childish curiosity most adults still feel about sex but wouldn't dare admit, especially not to each other. The film’s transgressing of genres also makes it a perfect fit for those interested in more experimental filmmaking.
Ann finds a kindred repressed spirit in Graham, with whom she spends time but runs away from once she finds out about the videotapes. She is funny, unaware of her own beauty (or pretends to be) and hides behind a good girl persona, but is never coy. This is what makes her responses to questions about sex so amusing. She describes her sister Cynthia as ‘loud’ and ‘extroverted’, whose affair with John can be seen as a form of sibling rivalry turned caustic. Giacomo’s performance as the sexy, spunky, and confident-in-her-skin Cynthia steals the show every time she appears on screen. The only character that falls slightly short of the wonderfully layered complexities each of them is endowed with is Ann’s husband, John, who falls prey to the scumbag husband stereotype, albeit it is subtly written by Soderbergh.
The film delves into the themes of intimacy beyond sex. The conversations between the characters and Graham’s video camera, erotic but never pornographic, are separate characters in themselves, uncovering the delicate threads upon which emotional connections are built by people living a dimly-lit urban life. In that sense, it mirrors American Beauty in its treatment of the rotting of human warmth beneath a near-perfect exterior.
The film that made Soderbergh a star in the indie film circuit after it won the Palme d'Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, Sex, Lies & Videotape takes inspiration from the director’s own experiences with intimacy. In his own words, Soderbergh identifies with Graham’s character the most, and that seems fitting from his magnetic storytelling through the camera. And it is eventually Graham’s camera that acts as a cathartic medium for his characters. For John, Ann is just his ‘wife’, and for her, he’s her ‘husband’, for Cynthia, every man is a sex object, and for Graham every woman, ‘ a subject’. The film does manage to steer clear from being didactic and preachy about this fact, focusing on the organic unfolding of the relationships amidst the quiet chaos. The camera moves as un-complicatedly and complicatedly as the characters do, making us feel out of place and uncomfortable with the context of what’s being discussed on screen but at the same time we are unable to tear our eyes away from it, fulfilling the qualifications necessary for unabashed voyeurism. A heady mixture of languid yet piercing camera movement, brilliant performances, and intense cerebral appeal, Sex, Lies & Videotape manages to stay relevant even 30 years later.
Now streaming on MUBI.
Steven Soderbergh is an American film director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, and editor. He made his debut with Sex, Lies, Videotape, which won him the Palme d’Or and James Spader the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. He is known as a pioneer for early American independent filmmaking and has made critically acclaimed films like Traffic, Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s Eleven series as well as Contagion.