Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 film SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE is about sex, lies, and videotape but in a moderately brainy context. There’s a dichotomy of two relationships at play, contrasting each other based on lies and honesty. The story revolves around four main characters married couple Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher) along with Peter’s old time friend Graham (James Spader) and Ann’s sister Cynthia played by Laura San Giacomo.
Consequently, John is having an affair with Cynthia which is the relationship based on lies and predominantly sex while Graham who’s impotent relies on recording women on videotape inquiring into their sexual histories and fetishes hinting at a sense of voyeurism. Spader’s performance is mesmerizing in his simple display of honesty with each character. It’s nearly hypnotic. When Ann learns of John’s infidelity she’s angered by the lies and allows Graham to videotape her which ignites their veracious relationship into something more profound than sex.
So in retrospect a relationship based on lies is no match to truth however, sometimes people prefer the latter. Relationships are all subjective, I suppose.
The element I indulged most in is the sense of rawness Soderbergh enlists because you don’t need an enormous budget to make a film that has heart and overall a great story. It’s easy to get drawn into the performances such as Spader’s character; a modest, somber man who only likes having one key in life. There’s beauty in his minimalism but also in the way he extracts the truth from Ann, Cynthia, and John. Roger Ebert in his review stated, “There are moments when it reminds us of how sexy the movies used to be, back in the days when speech was an erogenous zone.” I think he’s on to something there.
Potent dialogue and the subtlety in Soderbergh’s camera work calls attention to these minute tracking shots as if we’re being eased into the character’s psyche. It’s strange but enticingly affective. For instance, the camera tracks very delicately around the dining room table where Graham is engaged in conversation with Ann and John. What’s even more interesting is the first time Ann meets Graham and he asks her, “How do you like being married?” The question catches her off guard as she quickly summarizes superficial things about her marriage which one can assume it’s not going that great just on the basis of her answers.
What I love most about this film is the way it conveys relationships in all of its visceral destruction or reconstruction of how one perceives sex. There’s no funny business, there’s no overacting, no saturated soundtrack, or some glossy staged atmosphere, it’s all humanity in all its vulnerability. It’s about people making choices, acting on those choices, feeling those emotions, and contemplating their own assertions on the lives their living. It’s a mediation on standing at the crossroad between walking the path of fabrication or factuality.
You could find any of these characters in actual life which shows you how thought provokingly powerful and character driven this piece of cinema emphasizes. I underestimated Soderbergh’s little film, and am delightfully gratified by its ingenuity and intense focus on what provokes us from the here to there. It’s kind of enchanting.