Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: Quiet, but Damagingly Provocative
In front of the camera, the star is James Spader. Though it might not seem so at first, Spader eventually becomes an important figure with daunting power in this incredible, fantastic masterpiece of independent cinema, a film which director Steven Soderbergh has failed to top, even with fantastic follow-ups such as The Limey (1999) or Traffic (2000).
Sex, Lies and Videotape is a quiet film. It doesn’t attempt to be loud or noticeable, and the intriguing plot does not explode with fantastic twists. It just is. This is part of the power and believability of the film’s stark-but-erotic tone.
Andie MacDowell, in one of her earliest roles and her first big mainstream achievement plays Ann Millaney, who is married to the selfish John (Peter Gallagher), who doesn’t care about her and is having a highly sexual affair with the loose and sexy Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), Ann’s sister. This all changes following the arrival of Graham (Spader), a mysterious man who went to college with John. The two no longer no each other, and Graham is not interested in John. He strikes up a friendship with Ann, who is startled when he reveals to her that he is impotent. Not intending on having a sexual relationship with him in the first place, Ann is offended at the statement, but is nonetheless still allured to Graham, who possesses some sort of indescribable charm.
The film takes a psychological turn as Graham’s big secret is revealed: in order to satisfy himself sexually, he videotapes women confessing their deepest sexual secrets and desires, and then views the footage to get him going. He has a whole trunk of tapes which he keeps obsessively and watches periodically in an almost ritualesque fashion. But he is not some sort of sick maniac or pervert – Soderbergh makes that clear. He is simply a man fascinated by the secrets of these women and how they reveal them. Eventually Ann finds out about this, and the film takes yet another turn toward its anticlimactic, revealing conclusion.
Soderbergh wrote the film over a very short period, and filming didn’t take long either. His screenplay was recognized by the Academy for its brilliance, and rightfully nominated for an Oscar. Indeed, it is the screenplay from which the film derives its frank approach to human life and desire, and it is through the rather direct and to-the-point dialogue that Soderbergh makes his point. The film opens with Ann discussing with her therapist how she can’t stop thinking about “trash,” and in this scene we are greeted immediately with a taste of the voyeuristic style that colours the film, as the first of many private conversations is casually observed by Soderbergh. When the film’s dialogue is not frank and sexually explicit, it is also curious and enigmatic. Take for example the film’s final line, which I inexplicably love. Two characters have a very brief conversation. One says, “I think it’s gonna rain soon.” The other points out that it is raining. The first person smiles and says “Yeah.” Then the film ends. For a movie to end on such a confusing and dry moment is part of the genius of Soderbergh’s screenplay, and is one of the many moments where his unique writing ability becomes apparent, a precursor for the great dialogue and well-written sequences that would follow in his career.
The dialogue is inarguably the most important part of the film; the movie centres on it, and the story does not move because of the actions of characters as much as what they simply say. Take the videotaped confessions for example; one confession alone, viewed by another character, is the film’s entire climax, as the character watches the tape of the confessor and the words spoken force that person to react violently. It’s a chilling conclusion, and it all comes about purely because of spoken words. This is Soderbergh, exploring the power of what we say, and communicating how effective it can be, and how we must be more careful to choose what we say, and keep the spoken word in even higher priority than, say, the general action, which is a point few directors choose to explore, at least in a manner as direct as Soderbergh does.
Sex, Lies and Videotape is one of the best indie movies I have ever seen, as well as one of the best directorial debuts. It is deservingly among my fifty favourite films of all time, and shall remain there. So few films have frozen me in their last moments, even though in terms of action, the ending is tame. There are nowhere near enough films as strong or powerful as Sex, Lies and Videotape is that don’t have to resort to big-budget special effects or expensive casting. Sex, Lies and Videotape gets a full ten out of ten from me.