[originally published in 7 Days, on August 9, 1989]
Steven Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for sex, lies, and videotape during an eight-day drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, and the movie he made from it retains the hurtling urgency of its genesis. This is true despite the fact that it’s not a fast-moving film by any means. Its principal mode of action is conversation—people talking about sex, candor, responsibility, fidelity, contentment—and there’s no attempt to jazz things up with camera stunting. A little more limpidness in the cinematography, a little more attention to the piquant charms of place, and we might take it for an hommage to Eric Rohmer. Yet sex, lies, and videotape is an American original, beating a supple, nervy tattoo on the funny bone of contemporary values.
Small wonder that its 26-year-old director took home the Palme d’Ôr for best film at the latest Cannes festival. The movie is a chamber piece for four players, though almost never are more than two of them together at a given time. John (Peter Gallagher) is a Baton Rouge yuppie, eternal frat man, and junior partner in a law firm at age 30. His wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), having given up thoughts of a career, spends her drifty days agonizing over global dilemmas (e.g., where to put the world’s mounting supply of garbage) and parrying her analyst’s efforts to determine why she and John don’t touch anymore. She has a younger sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), a barmaid and compulsive free spirit whose lifelong rivalry with Ann has led her into an affair with John—a liaison of which Ann remains unaware.
Enter Graham (James Spader), a college classmate of John’s, returning to town after nine years. Invariably garbed in black (“like some undertaker of the art world,” cracks John) and long dedicated to a lifestyle based on carrying only one key (to his car), Graham strikes up a tentative friendship with Ann and consents to her finding a house for him to rent. He’s a wry variant on all those poetic Tennessee Williams studs who strut onstage to set the dramatic pulse a-beating and inject the sap of life into bemused and/or desiccated Southern belles. A rather extreme variant: Graham is impotent. More precisely, he can’t have an erection in the presence of another person. Nevertheless, his sojourn will lead to a profound upheaval in the lives and relationships of all the other characters.
Synopsized this way—and it’s an accurate synopsis as far as it goes—the scenario of sex, lies, and, videotape may sound like the sort of precious “well-made play” one would switch off PBS to avoid. What saves it, indeed galvanizes it, is Soderbergh’s tensile direction and his brilliant, close-in collaboration with the cast.
Soderbergh maintains a singular camera presence throughout the film. His angles and compositions rarely suggest a deterministic point of view, yet few contemporary American films have a more inexorable air of watching. The two-character scenes tend to be broken down further into juxtaposed shots of individuals absorbed in the solipsism of their own game playing. This finds its most extreme expression in Graham’s apparently full-time activity, videotaping women talking about their sex lives. Graham touches neither the camera nor himself during these interviews, but he masturbates while looking at them on tape. They’re his sex life, too, private but also personalized. As Cynthia explains after her own rapt performance in front of Graham’s camera, “He has to know the people. He has to be able to interact with them.”
The writer-director neither endorses nor deplores Graham’s onanistic researches. The character’s dignity remains uncompromised, for his conduct is the result of an ethical decision, not a compensation for dysfunction. Soderbergh builds such extraordinary suspense into his pellucid narrative that it would be unfair to give away more of the storyline (when we learn something about the characters is as important as what we learn). Still, it’s necessary to note that Graham, a figure of almost saintly probity, is a self-confessed pathological liar, the moral equivalent of a recovering alcoholic. He has deliberately elected a lifestyle that will protect others from his intimate contamination. In the mesmerizing climactic scene (pun unavoidable), he admits to Ann, “I’ve got a lot of problems—but they belong to me.” No, she counters, anyone who walks through his door becomes a part of his life: “You’ve had an effect on my life,” she says, and for Graham the recognition wreaks devastation—and deliverance.
I shouldn’t wish to discourage ticket buyers by saying so, but for all its frankness about sex, lies, and videotape, the movie is remarkably chaste visually. A shot of John waiting naked on a bed for Cynthia, an unpotted plant perched on his dick, is somehow less raunchy than Cynthia’s spoken recollection of the first time she saw a penis: she became so fascinated that she forgot there was a guy attached to it. Within Soderbergh’s mise-en-scène, the most sensual motif is the straitlaced Ann’s penchant for getting barefoot whenever she lets her soul show—with her analyst (a nice performance by Ron Vawter), talking on the phone with her sister, making a crucial discovery in mid-housecleaning, or getting set for her own moment before Graham’s camera.
Andie MacDowell’s screen acting has been underwhelming heretofore. (In her debut, as Jane to Greystoke‘s Tarzan, she modeled tastefully but had to be dubbed by Glenn Close.) As Ann she’s a revelation, mapping a convincing course from verging-on-ditzy wifelet who blanches at the F-word, to implacable truth seeker who pushes herself and her fellow characters beyond the last frontiers of evasion. Her thin voice and planar, masklike beauty find an ideal foil in the feline Laura San Giacomo, whose grave impudence and sardonic growl suggest an Annie Potts with sex appeal.
One wonders what figure in his past (or aspect of his own personality) Soderbergh is exorcising by way of John, the one character so unmitigatedly contemptible that he threatens to throw the script out of balance. Peter Gallagher’s features seem to be those of a little boy grown large with repellent sensuousness; he has fit satisfactorily only into the Lewis Carroll surreality of Dennis Potter and Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild, in which Coral Browne appraised him tenderly and then pronounced, “What a fraudulent young man you are!” Soderbergh, acknowledging that John is the least well-drawn character, has praised Gallagher for “constantly coming up with ways for John to slither this way or that.” He slithers definitively, but the completeness with which his character gets trashed, as husband, lover, friend, and careerist, remains dismaying in a film that otherwise honors its people for the strength of their imperfections.
That leaves James Spader, and Spader is magnificent. The best thing in half a dozen bad movies of the past couple of years, this amazing young actor at last has a setting worthy of him. Again, Soderbergh has testified that Spader was virtually the co-auteur of the riveting penultimate sequence. The film would be unimaginable without him, striding an ineffable line between pathology and humane perception, vicious satire and transcendent humor, tenderness and despair. Graham’s mother, “a prisoner of public television,” named him out of her devotion to things English. Surely Soderbergh had Graham Greene in mind. Spader’s burnt-out case is worthy of the pedigree.
Copyright © 1989 Richard T. Jameson