Any film that takes sex and the fundamentals of modern romance seriously is bound to raise some unanswerable questions. For example, should we never take advice from someone we haven’t had sex with? Would we let a stranger record our sexual life on videotape? And what do we know about a “normal” frame of mind? Is there such a thing? These are all questions asked by the characters in sex, lies, and videotape. Like Blue Velvet (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988) before it, Soderbergh’s film fits into a style of sexual questioning in late ‘80s. The joy of watching it endures not only because the direction is assured, the music is haunting and the performances are pitch perfect, but because it was brave. The film tackles difficult subjects (sex, love, fidelity) and leaves audiences with a dark yet sweetly satisfying erotic mystery in their hands.

sex, lies, and videotape is set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Soderbergh spent much of his adolescence. A cocky lawyer named John (Peter Gallagher) is married to Ann (Andie MacDowell) but their sex life is nonexistent. Ann tells her therapist she’s fine with it because she’s never liked sex that much anyway. John, meanwhile, is ensnared in bed with Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), Ann’s younger, rebellious sister.

Graham (James Spader), John’s friend from college, shows up to complicate things further. He himself is a big ball of complication. When he arrives, John is at work and Ann is forced to make small talk. Graham, being an enigmatic soothsayer of sexuality, skips over the weather and goes straight for what’s real. After all, he’s an authentic guy; he doesn’t have a landline and he claims to enjoy living out of his car. He asks Ann about her marriage and she can’t conceal her doubts. As they talk, a tender thread grows between these lost souls. Indeed, their relationship is the heart of the film.

John comes home for dinner and behaves like a chauvinistic buffoon. One can’t help but adore Soderbergh for writing such a contemptible male character. In fact, sex, lies, and Videotape is deeply sympathetic to its female characters. Cynthia has a free-wheeling attitude toward sex but it makes her vulnerable to be used and abused by men. Ann, on the other hand, is repressed and her struggles point toward the systematic suppression of women’s autonomy and sexual agency.

When dinner is over, it’s agreed that Ann will help Graham find a place to live. She does because she’s a housewife with nothing better to do and while having lunch afterward, they talk about sex. Graham admits that he’s impotent and Ann is intrigued. It makes him seem gentle or somehow harmless and she admits that she hasn’t been having sex with John. Graham passes no judgment. He’s a reserved, thoughtful type of man.

One of the “lies” of the film’s title gets exposed when Graham admits to his sexual pastime: he videotapes women talking about their sexual experiences. Ann tells Cynthia and she tracks down Graham’s address because she wants to get in on the videotape action. Wearing hoop earrings and a tank top, she talks openly while Graham films. Is Soderbergh getting meta? Duh. He’s smart enough to know the cinema has always been an excuse for men to shoot, edit and watch women as sexual beings.

By the end of the film, the tables have turned. Graham is the one being filmed and no one’s going home until the truth comes out. Other things come out too, namely Ann’s sexuality. One only wishes Soderbergh were brave enough to show her pleasure, which is something the film industry has historically been (and remains) afraid to show.
Soderbergh is a stylistic chameleon. He can do experimental (Kafka), criminal (Traffic), biographical (Erin Brockovich), comedic (Ocean’s 11) and thrilling (Contagion). His eclectic output is one of the reasons why returning to sex, lies, and videotape is such a pleasure.

Released in 1989, Soderbergh’s first feature film was allegedly written by the director on a legal pad in eight days. It went on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, boost the careers of James Spader and Andie MacDowell and further the whole notion of independent film. Revisiting the minimalistic drama today, it retains all the freshness and provocation it had 30 years ago. The reason, of course, is sex.

“Why are you doing this?” Ann asks Graham in one of the film’s final scenes. “Is this what you want to be the rest of your life?” They’re alone in a room, talking. There’s no nudity, no sex, no action, no crying. They’re just two people, questioning each other about who they are and what they want—sexually but also philosophically. The two aren’t as different as you might think.

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