sex, lies, and videotape

May 16, 2011

The most highly touted arthouse movie of the year is sex, lies, and videotape, the low-budget debut effort of a 26-year-old writer-director named Steven Soderbergh. Advance word on the film has been high since its first festival in January, which was followed by two important prizes at the Cannes Film Festival this spring: best actor (for James Spader) and the best picture award.

Such praise sets the table for a letdown, but sex, lies, and videotape turns out to be a mightily intriguing film, true to its own odd nature and utterly mesmerizing. Soderbergh’s story, set in Baton Rouge, begins when a black-clad wanderer named Graham (Spader) rolls into town to visit an old college friend, John (Peter Gallagher).

These two have gone different ways since college. John is now in the suspenders-and-racquetball league, a yuppie climber married to Ann, a beautiful but unhappy woman (Andie MacDowell). Ann is a cool, repressed Southern belle, with a tendency to disavow problems; when her analyst asks how her relationship with her husband is going, she airily replies, “Fine, except I’m kinda going through this thing where I don’t want him to touch me.”

Meantime, John is carrying on with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who is decidedly unrepressed. When Graham arrives, he develops an instant rapport with Ann, but that disappears when she discovers his vocation: He videotapes women who describe their sex lives for his camera.

But if this is the only way Graham can enjoy sex, he is no more unhealthy than the other principals, none of whom is connecting with anyone else. Soderbergh’s own camera is much like Graham’s; he tends to shoot characters in isolation, each is his own separate space. People don’t so much communicate as they watch each other talk.

This creates a hypnotic effect, an eerie, arid dance of anxiety. Soderbergh stumbles only with the character of John, who is something of an easy caricature. The other characters are niftily drawn, and superbly acted. Andie MacDowell, heretofore best known as a ubiquitous model (she was also Jane in Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan), consistently discovers a fresh way to read a line or wrinkle her nose.

Laura San Giacomo finds a full-throated, lusty swagger for her sexy character. And James Spader demonstrates why he won the Cannes prize, with a mysterious, quietly smoldering performance; he’s always holding back something, as though his character knows enough about cameras to hide from them. Spader’s been stuck with mostly geeky supporting roles in recent years, but he always brought intensity to them. In sex, lies, and videotape, he finally gets to shine.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

That young lad Soderbergh is now making noise about his upcoming retirement, so either it’s been a long time since this movie came out or directing careers are getting shorter. Years ago I interviewed Soderbergh onstage once for a Seattle International Film Festival event, which seemed to go fairly well, although the most interesting part for me was talking to him backstage beforehand and comparing notes on early experiences reading Mad magazine movie parodies. In his book interview with Richard Lester (fascinating book) Soderbergh indicates his dislike of critics in fairly strong terms, so whatever. I wonder what this movie looks like now; in memory, it seems as much a part of its time as the John Hughes films, albeit with a greater degree of maturity and ambition.