Friday, November 8, 2013

Sex Sells

Film: Sex, Lies and Videotape
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I don’t have a vast amount of experience with the work of Steven Soderbergh. I’ve seen a few of his films and generally liked them, but I can’t say I’ve seen enough to know whether or not I’d rank him as one of the great directors I’ve encountered. Sex, Lies and Videotape is his first feature film. I didn’t see this when it came out (I didn’t see it until today, in fact), but I remember when it came out, because it create quite a stir. This is one of those difficult films for me to judge, mainly because I don’t really like the characters we are presented with in the film. These aren’t nice people or good people. They’re certainly broken, but for many of them, the fact that they are unlikable has nothing to do with their brokenness.

What we have is an odd relationship set here. Ann Mullany (Andie MacDowell) is in therapy for undisclosed reasons as the film starts. She’s got a nice house and a husband with a great job, but she is concerned with garbage. She’s also rarely intimate with her husband and doesn’t have much of a relationship with him. In her world, sex is overrated and she doesn’t miss it that much. This is probably a good thing for her, because her husband John (Peter Gallagher) is currently having a fairly torrid affair with her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). We discover that John has invited a friend from college to stay with them for a few days and didn’t bother to tell Ann. She’s upset with that because he didn’t consult her.

That friend turns out to be Graham (James Spader), who lives a Bohemian existence. Ann helps him find an apartment, which gets him off of the couch, but she finds Graham particularly fascinating. She admits to him that she doesn’t enjoy sex very much. He admits that he is impotent. That’s sort of a lie. He’s actually still completely hung up on his ex, who happens to live in the same town (Baton Rouge) as everyone else in the film, and he has come to reconcile with her. It is soon revealed that Graham has a massive collection of camcorder tapes that contain interviews with women about their sexual experiences and fantasies. Graham, we discover, is impotent when with other people; the tapes are what he uses for personal gratification.

These tapes become central to the narrative (and the title, of course) as both Ann and Cynthia eventually make a tape for Graham. This disturbs John, who is still sleeping with his sister-in-law. Eventually, thanks to the tapes and various confessions, all of the hidden truths and lies eventually come out, and change the relationships of these people completely.

So, essentially, Sex, Lies and Videotape is a relationship film with a massive dose of sex. This is not a rom-com or a dramedy. This is ugly and brutal and painful all the way through, and that’s very much the intent. There’s something very unsavory about all of the people involved here. John is an unrepentant philanderer; Cynthia is equally unrepentant about what she is doing to her sister. Ann is frigid and self-loathing. Graham is stalkerish and creepy.

So what’s the selling point here? The fact that it’s sexually explicit without having a great deal of overt sexual content. It’s actually rather difficult to describe in that sense. The entire film revolves around sex. There’s plenty of implied sexual activity. Virtually every conversation is entirely about sex. But there’s no nudity. So while there’s a ton of sex around everything in the film, it’s almost prudish in a way. There’s a sense ugliness, of the revealing of a hidden corruption being revealed here. In a way, it feels like David Lynch tried to make a film about relationships. It has that sort feel of hidden and unrevealed ugliness.

I’m not sure this is a film I’d care to watch that often. I think it’s really well written, solidly directed, very well acted, and nearly perfectly cast. It benefits greatly from a very sexually-charged performance from the husky-voiced Laura San Giacomo. But it did very much make me want to take a shower, and I would find it difficult to believe that that wasn’t Soderbergh’s intent.

Why to watch Sex, Lies and Videotape: Modern morality in crisis.
Why not to watch: Unlikable characters.


  1. I think Soderbergh is into crafting morality plays: "Traffic" is a commentary on the underbelly of American society; "Erin Brockovich" is a sermon against industry corruption; even his remake of "Ocean's Eleven" isn't devoid of a certain level of moralizing: friendship and loyalty matter, super-rich people are assholes, etc. The movie you just reviewed is probably treading in "American Beauty" territory (with Peter Gallagher as a connecting strand), commenting on the emptiness of middle-class American existence—the things we do to entertain ourselves as a way of not staring into the Void.

    I didn't like "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" for the same reason I didn't like the TV series "thirtysomething." Both were peopled with whiny, angsty characters who spent their time moaning and kvetching about life. It probably didn't help that I saw "Sex" in Switzerland in 1989, where it was titled, "Sexe, mensonges, et vidéo" (a literal translation of the English title) and was dubbed in French, with German subtitles. It was Switzerland, after all.

    1. Yeah, I get that. I didn't like the characters at all. But I liked the morality play. I like what Soderbergh was getting at with this.

      I really should watch more of his films.

    2. I like Soderbergh as a director. He has a very sharp sense of plot and pacing.

    3. Evidently, I typically do as well. I wasn't a fan of the second and third Ocean's films, but I appreciate the others I've seen or genuinely like them.

  2. I wasn't put off by the subject matter, In fact, one of the reasons I like this film is the frankness with which it deals with the sexual problems of the various characters. Each is screwed up about sex or by sex in their own way; none of them has a healthy sex life. Films RUN from dealing with issues like this, except with the most lurid B-movie snickering, so seeing one actually show them as serious issues was refreshing.

    And yes, San Giacomo was something else in this. I still love the scene where the random guy in the bar she works at sees her start to jump up on the counter and says, "This is my favorite part" as she spins on her butt to then jump down behind the bar. She just smiles while he says it.

    1. As is evidenced by this film and the previous review, I apparently have a think for husky-voiced women. Laura San Giacomo has moved on to television. I'd love to see her more in film.

      I wasn't put off by the subject here, either. I was instead surprised at how much I respected this film despite genuinely disliking all of the characters.