Sex, Lies & Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989)


James Spader (Graham Dalton), Andie MacDowell (Ann Bishop Mullany), Peter Gallagher (John Mullany), Laura San Giacomo (Cynthia Patrice Bishop). Written by Steven Soderbergh. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Rating: 18. Running time: 100 minutes.

A frank title from the frankest of films, this little indie flick from debut director Steven Soderbergh stormed Cannes and shocked thousands on its way. I’m sure almost nobody talks with the brutal honesty that the characters here do; they’re the type of people Sigmund must have dreamed of having as case studies. Yes, this film could easily just be called Sex, not because of the absence of accompanying lies and videotapes, but because it is sex that infiltrates even these two aspects of the film in the way it does everything else about it.

That may sound disparaging, but, despite truly mixed feelings, I think I understand the purpose. It seems different because of what the issue is, but when one really considers it, all meaningful films pick something to talk about in a way that exaggerates the extent to which it dominates life, and they must do so in order to make a point.

We’re shown, then, an affair between a married egotistical lawyer and his wife’s feisty sister, an affair that amateur Freudian rationalisation would put down to the fact the man’s relationship with his wife is sexless. Her lust for such things isn’t strong. She may even suffer from a mild case of androphobic Polanskian Repulsion. All changes, however, when her husband’s old friend arrives and mildly arouses her out of her mental abstinence. He intrigues her terribly, no moreso than when it becomes apparent that he keeps a homemade video collection. Naturally it is of a sexual nature, but not of the straight forward variety one would assume. He interviews women like a perverted psychiatrist, and then pleasures himself to the playback footage of them talking.

The affair plays out as predictably as a soap opera, with all the bad consequences such activities bring. The real interest lies instead with Graham, and his interactions with the two sisters. Surprisingly, not one sexual activity is shown in the entire film. The emphasis is on the imagination, and the implications of the dialogue. It’s undeniably erotic, but also extremely dark: the music is ever so slightly harrowing, making the film almost reminiscent of that other deviant account of sex and suburbia, Blue Velvet. And yet Sex, Lies and Videotape has much more purpose than any cheap film that intends to just shock by being vulgar. It digs deep, by exposing the fantasies and thoughts of people that largely look and live as normally as us. We all just hope and pray that its characters are abnormally neurotically erotic, even if Steven Soderbergh seems to think that that would be merely wishful thinking.

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