sex, lies and videotape (1989): Soderbergh’s Stunning Debut, Starring James Spader

Steven Soderbergh’s break came in 1986, when the rock group Yes asked him to shoot concert footage, which was later shaped into a Grammy-award winning video.

In 1987, Soderbergh put an “abrupt halt to all the bad personal stuff” that would be the basis for “sex, lies and videotape.” He wrote the screenplay in motels as he drove cross-country heading West. With backing from RCA/Columbia Home Video, the $1.2 million movie was completed a year later, representing “an end chapter” to a package of emotions he had been carrying with him for years.

The most remarkable thing about “sex, lies and videotape” was its freshness–it didn’t recall any other film. Soderbergh spoke with a distinctive voice about issues that mattered. Intimate in scale, the film is a finely crafted, modern-day morality tale. Set in Baton Rouge, it revolves around an outsider, a handsome young man named Graham (James Spader). Sexually impotent, Graham derives gratification from recording women talking about their sex lives.

A success at Sundance and a triumph in the Cannes Film Fest, “sex, lies and videotape” made Soderbergh, at 26, the youngest director to ever win the top award, the Palme d’Or. The movie also won the Cannes acting award for James Spader and was later nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

Soderbergh was stunned at people’s response to his movie as he thought it was “too internal, too self-absorbed.” Though not autobiographical, the film is personal: Soderbergh was not a sexual interrogator, but he was in a relationship where he behaved much like the films adulterous husband, hurting someone he was close to.

As the movie begins, a beauty in a long flowered dress, Ann Millaney (Andie MacDowell), sits in her psychiatrist’s office and talks about her fear: what will happen to all the garbage piling up in the world Her soft Southern voice floats over the image of Graham, her husband’s friend, who stops for a shave in a men’s room, splashing water under his armpits before driving on to Baton Rouge. At the same time, Ann’s husband, John (Peter Gallagher), takes off his wedding ring and heads off for a sexual interlude with Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). By the end of the opening sequence, when Graham takes his duffle bag from his trunk, Soderbergh has mapped out the film’s smooth style and mature tone.

A “Liaisons Dangereuses” for the video age, the movie is an absorbing tale of desire and anxiety in which Graham’s camera becomes the lead player. The film is structured as a layered labyrinth, in which the links among the partners are initially based on self-denial and deception. Documenting the video generation, Soderbergh shows an insider’s sense of his characters’ mental world. He directs the camera as if it were a natural storytelling device. The camera cuts fluidly from one pair to another, showing precision for details that are both funny and chilling. Dialogue-driven, the movie contains long sequences shot in close-up. Technically, Soderbergh’s debut was more accomplished than most first efforts.

Smart but confused, and hiding behind her good-girl demeanor, Ann never descends into coyness. She tells her psychiatrist, “I’m kinda goin’ through this thing where I don’t want him to touch me.” Her fragile look hides a sexuality whose existence she can hardly admit. Calling her sister “an extrovert, kind of loud,” turns out to be accurate. Cynthia sports a sharp nose, a randy gap between her teeth and a husky voice that suggests risk-taking. Sexually confident, she flaunts her shapely body in tight shirts and skirts. Cynthia’s affair with John is built on as much sibling rivalry and the thrill of deception as on sexual heat. “The beautiful, the perfect Ann,” Cynthia says with contempt, suggesting a manic edge beneath her self-possession.

Each and every character in the film is precisely constructed. From his wire-rim glasses and suspenders to his compulsive womanizing, John represents a shallow, amoral 1980s yuppie. But it’s Graham who’s the most intriguing character, a “nightmare” product of the video age. Impotent, his physical satisfaction stems from watching tapes of women revealing their sexual histories. With hesitant smile and tentative voice, Graham is both sweet and sinister. Upon arriving at Ann’s house, he instantly starts questioning her, “What do you like best about being married” He is a cool observer, so detached that voyeurism hardly matches his personality. Ann, the film’s most sympathetic character, sees in Graham vulnerable qualities, perceiving him as a kindred repressed spirit. She responds to him sexually, but runs from friendship when she learns about his tapes.

Graham distances everyone with his camera, an apt metaphor for people who can only relate through mediated images. Like Antonioni’s Blow Up, beneath the adultery intrigue, the film poses more serious questions about the potency of the video camera as alternative to real and direct experience. The bright windows that frame the characters reinforce the idea of voyeurism, while preventing the drama from becoming too claustrophobic. With a delicate serio-comic tone, the director’s authority embraces every detail. Ann sees John as the Husband and he sees her as the Wife; Cynthia sees every male as a sex object. Soderbergh’s camera, like Graham’s, is more concerned with talk than sex–it’s the dialogue that carries the erotic charge. All the characters are problematic: the dark deception of John and Cynthia, the buried passion of Ann and Graham.

The film is by no means perfect. The characters motivations are too simple: Cynthia needs to set herself apart from Ann, and Ann rejects sex partly because of Cynthia. The resolution is too neat for these messy lives, and the formation of a new couple at the end, while tentative, is too upbeat for this kind of tale. ‘

Those aspects, combined with a cast of name actors (rather than unknowns), positioned Soderbergh as a filmmaker who wants to do his own work but stay close to the mainstream.

It would have been more dramatic, but also more predictable, if the film assumed Graham’s distorted point of view, but Soderbergh’s detached strategy is more challenging. Soderbergh should also get credit for not allowing the viewers any distance, urging them to weigh the characters’ morality while evaluating their own motives.

As Janet Maslin pointed out in her N.Y. Times review, the moral transgressions committed by the characters are measured on a sliding scale: Is cheating on a sister worse than cheating on a spouse Is lying to oneself as bad as lying to others It’s all relative, with gray shading and moral ambiguity. “I look around this town,” Graham tells Ann, “and I see John and Cynthia and you, and I feel comparatively healthy.” Graham’s ritualistic recording of women’s confessions is his a means of seeking truth, but as the movie’s title indicates, it’s the dishonesty in sex, lies and videotape that gives it its edge. As Maslin suggested, each of the four principals turns out to be a liar of one sort or another, and weighing the different dishonest acts becomes the audience’s responsibility.