Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Director: Steven Soderbergh | Runtime: 1h 40mins | Drama
The quiet and innocent Ann (Andie MacDowell) questions her marriage and life when her cheating husband’s friend (James Spader) visits them and moves back to the area.
By now it’s very easy to spot Steven Soderbergh’s name on the credits. His name has been attached to multiple films, both big and small, for 30 years, and despite having a very up and down relationship with his own talent there was once a time when his eye was nothing short of genius. In his first film, that he apparently wrote in the space of just over a week, he managed to create a masterpiece of cinematic mood and intelligent writing. In many ways Sex, Lies, and Videotape plays like a stage play, with only four characters getting any sort of screen time (minus a reoccurring bar regular), using Soderbergh’s intelligent words to fuel the story along with four pitch perfect performances.
This film is first and foremost a character study, with each of the main characters really being personified by their own sexual preferences, which all contrast and parallel simultaneously. Andie MacDowell is in the performance of her career as Ann, who’s innocence is played off to a tee with an eventual sexual liberation of sorts that is beautifully performed in the films climax. Probably the biggest archetype of character in this is Peter Gallagher’s Jon, who strolls around perpetually lying and sleeping with his wife’s sister Cynthia, who in turn is the polar opposite to her sister Ann as an already independent and sexually liberated woman. But the standout, if there is one, is James Spader’s Graham, who’s mysterious demeanour is amplified by a unique performance, and honestly brings most of the atmosphere to each scene he is in. His fetish, where the title gets it’s name, is from videotaping women merely talking about their sexual history. This boasts a relatively alienating feeling towards Graham as a character, but where the film finds some of it’s best talent is when it harnesses James Spader’s unique acting ability to give the character a sympathetic edge. All of the performances are arguably four of the best to come from the 1980s and definitely deserve all the praise in the world.
But without Soderbergh’s writing and cinematography, the performances really can’t take over. It has to be said that scene after scene boasts such an expertly applied touch that Soderbergh makes it look so simple. He’s aware of the dialogue approach his script is using so he uses technique to subtly move his camera with fluid motion that neither drags his film or makes the actors second best. Only the very best of directors can wish to be so clinical in their directing, and Soderbergh managed it flawlessly on his first try.
With so many ups and downs to his career you forget just how good Soderbergh can be, and arguably the closest he’s come to replicating this talent is with Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Traffic (2000), but nothing he’s done since or may ever do again will match the authenticity and fluidness of his first ever film. This is truly one of the highlights of his career and even more so, 1980s cinema.