Sex, Lies, And Videotape


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sex, Lies, And Videotape, starring Andie MacDowell, joins the Sundance London line-up.
"Made on just over a million dollars, this remains a hugely impressive first feature."

The film that launched the career of celebrated director Steven Soderbergh and won the 1989 Palme d'Or, Sex, Lies And Videotape was pivotal in launching the craze for independent film that would see audiences discover cinema afresh in the final years of the 20th Century. Shocking in its time, it has become a fascinating historical artefact because of the way its central ideas have been reshaped by the coming of the information age. It captures Western society at a critical moment in time when it was beginning to glimpse, for the first time, what it would become.

Andie McDowall, in a performance she has never bettered, is Ann, a housewife who apparently has everything and yet obscurely feels that something is amiss. As a matter of fact, it is - her husband is sleeping with her sister, an extrovert who despairs of Ann's passivity - but he's a good liar, not least because she desperately want to believe him. Until, that is, a friend of his comes to town. Graham (James Spader) is diffident, arty, understanding and, he assures her, quite impotent. The two form a bond that begins to bring Ann out of her shell. Then she discovers his video collection.

Copy picture

In an era when talking about sex where strangers can see it is so commonplace that it takes mere seconds to find, the idea that people would be shocked by it (rather than merely disapproving) has become foreign. It used to be said that the past is another country; rewatching this film, it increasingly comes to feel like another planet. Yet the people remain recognisable (especially Spader, who has played thinly veiled versions of the same character in several films since), and their efforts to understand what the videotapes represent feel like tentative steps into the future. Meanwhile, as the sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) eagerly takes the plunge and asks to be interviewed, Ann experiences a more profound awakening, reminiscent of that of the mother in Pleasantville, which Soderbergh would go on to produce.

Sitting on the sidelines in all this is John (Peter Gallagher), the middle class white man suddenly terrified by potential loss of privilege. He is the most crudely drawn of the characters, with little opportunity to evince redeeming humanity, yet it's easy to recognise him in thousands of voices that have cried out against cultural change since; he too, in his way, is a prophet.

Made on just over a million dollars, this remains a hugely impressive first feature, but sometimes both the low budget and Soderbergh's inexperience show through. The lighting, in particular, is terrible; sometimes it complements the suburban vibe but more often it just makes the film look like a twee TV movie. In places the sound is also bad and the sets look hastily cobbled together. Through all this, however, Soderbergh's script shines and the confidence with which he arranges scenes is remarkable. Some of the pauses are too long, some transitions awkward, but ultimately we believe in these people and their experiences, alien as they once were, alien as they have become.

The iconic central image, the video camera, reflects both the transformation of the characters and the changes in the industry that the film heralded - the democratisation of cinema. Six years earlier, Videodrome had announced the coming of the video word made flesh. Here we are presented with flesh becoming video, with human experiences merging into celluloid, with individuals extending into something shared. Video cameras boomed in popularity as they came to be used to record births; this one records the birth of an era.

Reviewed on: 13 Jul 2014
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Sex, Lies, And Videotape packshot
Surburban lives are turned upside down and lies exposed due to the arrival of a man who gets his kicks from video interviews.

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo

Year: 1989

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US


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