DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Monday 30 November 2009

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Andie McDowell, James Spader, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo


By Alan Bacchus

Much like the same anointed crown ‘Easy Rider’ has been given as the spearhead for the generation of 70’s auteur filmmakers, Steven Soderbergh’s debut feature, in general, has become has been agreed upon starting point for the resurgence of independent cinema in the 90’s.

Indeed, it was a cause célèbre back in 1989, on the surface, by the very nature of its provocative title, but even in hindsight, it's film of undeniable magnetic power and the mark of a supremely talented filmmaker. It’s a simple set-up, essentially a fourhander about a homely and sexually disinterested gal, Ann (Andie McDowell) who finds herself becoming more distant from her husband John (Peter Gallagher). It turns out John is having an affair with Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), the younger and less-attractive of the two who presumably commits the heinous act as some kind of vengeful sibling rivalry. Then along comes the Graham (James Spader) the loner and enigmatic old college buddy of John’s looking to reconnect after 8 years.

Graham reveals to John his predilection for videotaping women who feel the need to confess their sexual secrets as a form of amateur voyeuristic porn therapy. Ann feels an attraction to Graham's exposed soul, which irks the hypocritical and immature John. Eventually John/Cynthia’s secret affair will come to light, thus causing Ann to engage in Graham’s sexual advances thus freeing herself from her own mental and physical repression.

Soderbergh has had a robust and prolific career and since ‘Out of Sight’ has been someone who can make just about any movie he feels like. Yet, looking back at his 21 pictures, “Sex, Lies and Videotape" might just be his best. Though, I would put ‘Traffic’ ahead, no other in his filmography can match up the full cinematic power of SLV.

Soderbergh casts four unique personalities in the roles. James Spader, winner of the Best Actor prize at Cannes, is the showcase. Spader combines a cool James Dean-like rebelliousness enigma with a Mitzelplik-ian agenda...and a blonde floppy mullet. Spader’s everyman quality and lack of traditional square-jawed movie star good looks creeps up on us, delivering a truly great performance. Spader had teased us with some slimy supporting roles in ‘Wall Street’ and ‘Less Than Zero’ but in ‘Sex Lies’ Spader easily sinks into the skin of the impotent, manipulator and manages to make even a perverted and naughty voyeur seem neighbourly.

Andie McDowell has never been better. Her performance as the prudish housewife completely disarms her stunning beauty. Prior to SLV, and her bit in ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’, her only other role in ‘Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan’ received not-so-kind notoriety. McDowell’s dialogue, which was laced with too much of her southern drawl, had to be looped entirely by Glenn Close in post-production. And so her immersive and nuanced performance in 'SLV' is a complete shock. John and Cynthia have the weakest roles on the page, but as performed by Gallagher and San Giacomo the broken family dynamic works.

The film stands out like as least 'Soderbergh' of all his films. Soderbergh’s stylistic hallmarks – timeline shifting, bold musical choices, and most certainly his identifiable colour-coded expressive cinematography - are absent. SLV is a straight-ahead, no frills visual experience – a choice, not necessarily born from budget constraints, as he freely admits to Neil LaBute in the audio commentary. He could have thrown every stylistic device he wanted, but held back to serve the material. Soderbergh’s camera, is not locked down, nor is it roaming endlessly. His camera moves are classical, discreet and motivated.Maybe he’s lying or he really did have that much objectiveness about his own material, but it works.

Soderbergh’s chosen locale, his hot and sweaty hometown of Baton Rouge Louisiana adds even a few more layers of depth. Andie McDowell as the naïve southern belle caught innocently in a sexual triangle feels like the same kind of sexual angst ringer Tennessee Williams put his characters through ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’

In fact, though the film was specifically written for the screen the sophistication in dialogue and performances feels like stage-bound material. Soderbergh has certainly never ever written anything this good since. So we can’t help but think Sex Lies served as some kind of cathartic admonition of his own sexual frustrations and perversions, which make the film even that much more courageous.

'Sex, Lies and Videotape' is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

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