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"sex, lies and videotape" is a low-key drama that REALLY showcases Stephen
Soderbergh's true talents. The film was made on a modest budget and is
mainly dialogue-driven, yet I was deeply fascinated from start to finish.
This is another film that sends out a message to all aspiring directors:
You don't need a large budget to make a truly great motion picture!
Soderbergh hasn't received worldwide fame until recently with the hit
"Traffic." As much as I loved "Traffic" I urge everyone--who's curious of
Soderbergh's work--go check out this initial effort.
The element that impressed me the most was the succint, yet brutally realistic dialogue. I've never been more impressed with a film's dialogue and actually screamed out, "Now THAT'S how people talk!" The interactions between each character are so intense and down to earth, and gets the audience deeply engaged. James Spader shines in this career-making performance as a documentary filmmaker who gets his rocks off filming women talking about sex. We never know why he developed this unusual interest, but that's what's so great. And the way Spader carries his character is so subtle and powerful. His character is quiet and mysterious, and he expresses this enigmatic role perfectly with every silence, every facial gesture, every tone of voice. That's another element that I loved. Soderbergh expresses to his audience that people don't always mean what they say. And you can tell by every hint of body language. During these character interplays, you get a feel for what the characters are really thinking with their every subtle nuance. And that's what creates most of the film's tension.
And of course, the film has great depth and treats its subject with the greatest of maturity. In one scene, Spader interviews this young woman who talks about her first experience with masturbation. That could've easily been transformed into something gratuitous and heavy-handed. The subjects of sex and infidelity are treated with a sense of reality, and I'm sure many couples who are involved in relationships where one of the mates are cheating will find the whole situation with Andie McDowell and Peter Gallagher haunting. Everything is low-key and some might find the rhythm slow-moving, but that's what I liked about it. It slowly unfolds and takes its time developing the characters and their situations. Many filmmakers would've taken the subject of infidelity and made it into a melodramatic soap. But Soderbergh is very patient. He never once thinks, "Maybe the audience is not interested anymore," and speeds things up. He goes at his own pace, and works with it consistently.
I don't know if others will get the same effect I did out of this movie, but appreciate a film that respects its characters and respects its dialogue. Sure, I also appreciate a film with massive entertainment value, but other times I'd rather watch something with depth and realism. This is one of those films that just has a subtle energy. Looking at "sex, lies and videotape" from the outside, it's hard to explain the power of Soderbergh's masterpiece. All I say is go see for yourself! I hope you'll be just as astounded.
My score: 10 (out of 10)
Sex, Lies and Videotape will probably strike the average viewer as
irredeemably degenerate, maybe even perverted, since voyeurism is still
considered aberrant behavior. But as far as this film is concerned, that's
the appearance, not the reality. Whereas the drama revolves to a certain
extent around the voyeuristic masturbation of an impotent man, the heart and
soul of the film is an unrelenting, hard driving psychological siege on the
biggest erogenous zone of all: the brain.
This film is about sex. But it's not about the frothy swapping of fluids and feelings. It's about honesty, without which one can't have intimacy, which is to sexual stimulation what the water valve is to the hydrant. From beginning to end, we see this theme brought into focus by the dramatic contrast between two different relationships the one based on lies and deceit, the other based upon honesty. And guess which one wins out in the long run?
In a sense, it's what your mother and Sunday school teacher taught you all along. But what makes this movie way more interesting than your mother or Sunday school teacher is the level of honesty it suggests is necessary as the basis of a healthy relationship. Ann (Andy McDowell), for example, an acceptably moral person tells the voyeuristic masturbator `You got a problem.' He replies by adding that he has a lot of problems. But, he says, `They belong to me.'
Somehow, the openness about one's problems renders their bile and poison ineffective. `Lilies that fester,' said Shakespeare, `smell far worse than weeds.'
Steven Soderbergh, as observed by other reviewers and critics, did take
inspiration from the kinds of films Eric Rohmer's been making for decades.
These kinds of films, as Sex, Lies, and Videotape is at its core, about
people in morality crises, and how they get out of them or linger with how
they act is the point. Some people may not like the film, therefore, as
nothing incredibly outrageous or spectacular will occur. For all the
attention Soderbergh received (Golden Palm, Independent Spirits, Oscar and
Golden Globe nominations, immediate recognition), he's made a small film,
and it's not as ambitious as some of his later, greater works like Out of
Sight and Traffic. But as a revealing, intimate character study, with an
often clever and controlled mis-en-scene, Soderbergh shows his skills were
already honed at twenty-six.
Without good acting the film would be like a hopeless rendition of a foreign film, but with the four lead performances from McDowell, Gallagher, Gia Como, and Spader (his is most under-stated of the bunch for me) these are as fully realized characters as Soderbergh could get. They all must've taken something about the characters in the script, because for all the flaws and misconceptions and fears these characters carry, they are human. Even Gallagher's John, who's the conniving husband and lawyer, is recognizably as he is even when he's comparatively lesser than Graham and Ann. Only one side character, the barfly played by Steven Brill, gets the film to immediately halt with uncomfortable humor. But the rest of the film, loaded with innuendo (there's not one shot of nudity, similar to a Rohmer film like Chloe in the Afternoon, where the cover art of the film is rather misleading to those looking for a film with breasts and other parts) and involving drama, doesn't shake its foundations until maybe the last five to ten minutes. And when it does, it does not make the film a lost cause, at least for me. Begs to be seen again, though with maybe a year or so between viewings. A-
Spader's character was the reason I enjoyed the film so much. I could
identify with him and his dilemma. It seemed he felt like a stranger in an
even stranger land. Who were these humans that seem so happy in the same
world he could not find happiness within? What is this life we live? More
importantly, what is the point? Why bother? His great battle with existence
was a philosophical one. He, like myself, felt infinite sadness over the
knowledge that are no concrete answers...
The movie is also interesting because it attacks the main sexual organ, the mind. Graham while trying to distance himself from the human experience by capturing sex confessionals on videotape, perhaps unwittingly became more intimate with his "partners." Roger Ebert points out that the films' argument is that conversation is better than sex.
Personally, I think the movie is about trying to find happiness with another person. Some Modest Mouse song lyrics come to mind. "And it's hard to be a human being/ And it's harder as anything else/ and I'm lonesome when you're around/ I'm never lonesome when I'm by myself" Graham finds it hard to be a human being and live in this human world full of values that he finds strange, confusing, and most importantly unfulfilling. What do you do when your ideology and needs don't mesh in the society you live within? How does one deal with feelings of loneliness in a society that spurns him? This movie is about one man's way.
James Spader does such an excellent job as this character. In fact, great acting all around by the entire cast and excellent writing and directing by Mr. Soderbergh. Go see this movie now!
Why does Graham prefer iced tea so much? He offers it to Ann when she visits
him for the first time at his apartment. Does the same when Cynthia pays him
a visit. When he and Ann are having their first real conversation in the
restaurant there's a glass of iced tea next to him, while Ann has a glass of
white wine. Besides being a probable leitmotif, it's something that, seems
to me is a part of Graham's character. He comes to live in that town to get
away, to find a closure to his past. He ends up providing closure to the
lives of these three characters. Let's imagine a scenario sans Graham - a
phase in the life of a woman whose husband is having an extra-marital affair
with her sister. She's suspicious but he denies. She finds evidence to prove
that he's having an affair with her sister and decides she's had it, she's
leaving her husband. Do you think this might have been the conclusion of
this scenario? I think not. As Ann rightly says to Graham, that she would
have left her husband anyway, but the reason she's doing it now, is because
of him. She thinks sex is overrated, her sister seems to believe in the
opposite and here comes a man whose profession, for all practical purposes
is having women talk about sex. Ann's therapist is a foil to Graham. While
he dispenses his advice and listens patiently to Ann, Graham is the all
important catalyst that helps her make a practical decision in her life. He
also aids in her real sexual awakening. Before Graham, sex, for Ann was
incidental. Now it takes on a different perspective.
One might say that in making women talk so intimately to him about sex, he sort of breaks the ice on a topic that is more or less socially tabooed. His is a presence that evokes trust in the most introverted of women, making them confide in him and by doing so have an almost cathartic experience. I think the iced tea motif of Graham's character fits in here. Beyond his trademark black-shirt, blue denim attire, it is the only other element related to him that is conspicuously stated. That's my conjecture anyway!
Needless to say, James Spader is superb as Graham. He manages to evoke many of the nuances of Graham's character by subtle, volatile facial expressions. Andie McDowell is also great as Ann. Hers is a really sensitive and touching performance. Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo are both equally good. The music for this film is appropriately minimal and poignant. Great effort by Soderbergh, who I'm glad to hear has come back to his experimental film roots with his recent film 'Full Frontal'.
Yes, "Sex, Lies and Videotape" is about sex, lies and videotape. And, while
the sex is mostly served in dialogue-form and not a single shot of nudity is
present, there is some graphic lying and some explicit videotape. Kinky,
Well, not really. "Sex, Lies and Videotape" is Steven Sodenbergh's first film and it's not a bad one. It's just not entirely worthy of the praise it received, at Cannes for example. The situations in the film do create a fair amount of tension that moves the story along. But then, it'd be hard not to have some tension in a film about a woman whose husband is cheating on her with her sister, while she starts interacting with a stranger who is the husband's old college roommate and has a strange videotape fetish and may or may not be a pathological liar. (How do you believe someone who just confessed to having been a pathological liar to not being one anymore? The film doesn't really riddle that one for us.)
Clearly, these characters clash together. But it's not as heated or interesting as it was in later Sodenbergh's films like the spectacular "Traffic." The dialogues in "Sex, Lies and Videotape" range from good to incredibly awkward. But the real strength of the film is the actors. While James Spader clearly stands out - I have never seen him deliver such a subtle performance where every scene simply works for him - Andie McDowell is phenomenal, Peter Gallagher playing the scummy, treacherous husband yuppie lawyer type is great and Laura San Giacomo as the vulgar sister / lover is fabulous. Their performances make the script work, which, under normal circumstances with inferior actors would have seemed rather silly.
It is a film about relationships, dilemma, courage and more. What works
in life and what does not. Honesty does and (crudely speaking) at a
very basic level that is the message. At the very heart are the three
protagonists who are stuck. The therapist is spectacularly wrong in his
interpretation to the apparently frigid wife: 'If you think about it
...you are obsessed about things you have no control over'. But she
demonstrates at the end that she did have the control. All she needed
was a better, more 'intimate' therapist; a catalyst : Graham ; who ends
up uncluttering the cheating sister in law's mind and forces the
husband to confront his problems in the process. It is a remarkably
optimistic film in its content and therefore perhaps slightly
It is a film about masterful use of contrasts; the two women and the two men could not have been more opposite in every possible respect. In a way Graham is also a perfect contrast to the imperfect Psychoanalyst. This helps the director bring out the message clearly.
The whole film is crafted in a minimalist way, flows smoothly and does not carry much 'garbage'! Music, camera and the narrative are almost perfect in that they are almost invisible. So are the actors, especially James Spader and to a large extent Andie MacDowell. Gallegher is probably less than perfect but very good nonetheless. Laura Giacomo portrays a rather difficult character really well. It treats the audience with respect as the message is subtle and very personal, as it should be. My only grievance is the last office scene involving Gallegher was probably unnecessary.
Sex and the videotapes are incidental to the storey and perhaps misnomers therefore.
It is like reading a rather well written short storey and I would recommend 'Days And Nights In The Forest' (perhaps slightly more realistic and understated than this film) by Satyajit Ray to those who have enjoyed this film.
My rating 8/10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, And Videotape was all the rage at Cannes in 1989, winning the Golden Palm Award for Soderbergh and the Best Actor Award for James Spader. Soderbergh was also nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay. Despite the lurid, voyeuristic title, this film is not really about sex at all. It's about intimacy and what it takes to reach that with another person. Lies are always a barrier to that, but who would have thought that videotape would be so useful in revealing so much about people, although it actually shows little? James Spader, late of "The Practice" fame, is outstanding as the old college friend that returns to his friend's town, and stirs up the truth about each character. Peter Gallagher, currently in "The O.C.", is equally great as the lawyer, husband, who uses those in his orbit without regard to any consequences. Andie MacDowell is absolutely perfect as the conservative wife, who thinks that sex is overrated. Laura San Giacomo, from "Just Shoot Me", is also perfectly cast as the sexpot sister of MacDowell. All the actors, who weren't too well known at the time, give bull's eye performances. Rarely has any of them been as good since. Soderbergh's direction and screenplay are also responsible for the success of the film. Very little actually happens in the movie in terms of action, scene changes, and technical aspects of film in general. It's reminiscent of the many talky European films that are often very frank but where little happens. However, there is not a wasted moment in this film. Soderbergh gives us one of the most honest, mature depictions of the barriers to intimacy ever put on film. In doing so, he shows us that the characters are not free of their own ulterior motivations, even though some appear to change for the better. What is significant is that barriers to intimacy are just as difficult to face as the events that precipitate our facing them. The brief final shot speaks volumes with no dialog. ***1/2 of 4 stars.
A classic case of where the mechanics of marriage become the insidious
culprit to sexual indiscretion...John Millaney is the overly mortgaged
white collar malcontent who is callous with his regard toward marital
fidelity...He has an affair with his wife's sister, Cynthia Bishop, she
is a morally bankrupt loner who resents her sister's relatively
structured existence...Gram Dalton is the voyeuristic creep who preys
on the dissatisfaction of married women with the seven year itch
syndrome, and other disgruntled and socially misplaced women as well!!
He perceives vulnerability in women to be sexually stimulating!! His
ultimate undoing is his creative resolution to boredom, and this
basically backfires in an absolutely horrendous way!!! Ann Millaney
(John's wife) is torn between a perfect marriage and an emotional
millennium.. She is convinced that not only does doing things her way
work, IT MUST!!. It is not necessary to have all the missing pieces to
the puzzle in her marriage because she realizes the ramifications of
such a heinous plight!! What presses everyone's buttons? Is it kink, is
it bi, or bi for the night, is it emotional nurturing?...James Spader's
character (Gram Dalton) has a life that is based on comparative
stability, everybody (mostly women) can expose their lewd nuances while
he keeps his a secret, once someone has tampered with his quirkiness
which is close to the vest, he has no ability to cope, thus, he
exaggerates his mistakes!!!All of the characters in this film are hit
with the grim reality that not accepting responsibility accomplishes
nothing....They all engage in a form of permanent self destruction!!
Being flippant about immorality has a definite rude awakening!! What
seems complicated is really very simple, and the depraved intrigue of
perversion merely brings out all of their most dreaded skeletons in the
closet!!!! Seldom in a film is there such a precise poignancy about
things that bother people that really should not bother them at
all...This is what gets them into so much trouble!! Steven Soderbergh's
production efforts in this film were merely a harbinger of things to
come, as he has gone on to produce and direct fabulous movies ("Good
Night and Good Luck", "Syrianna", and "Traffic", to name but a few!!)
This film effectuates a noteworthy devotion to an unintentional and
sordid sexual authenticity!! Sundance is a network for the
non-conventional.."Sex Lies and Videotape" is testament to the fact
that what appears gray flannel is not always the panacea people would
like to believe it to be!! Marital upheaval is all about emotional
affliction in this movie. Latent reactions are a manifestation of
psychological insecurity. You are never going to get what you want out
of a relationship because you don't know what that is!! This was the
summon substance of what the film "Sex Lies and Videotape" was all
about!! This film had a personal dedication to it as well!!
A very well made film, I give it 5 stars!!!
Steven Soderbergh's now legendary debut was the first his film I saw.
It was in 1989, during the Moscow International Film Festival. Only
later I found out that Sodebergh was 29 when he wrote the screenplay in
eight days during a trip to Los Angeles and made the film for $1.8
million. His independent movie was a real hit that was selected for
Cannes Film Festival and won the Palme d'Or and the best actor prize
for James Spader.
The film concerns four attractive and intelligent young people. Ann (Andy MacDowell in the best role I've ever seen her) is married to John (Gallagher) but their sexual life is practically non-existent since Ann finds sex over-rated, and to simply put it, she does not enjoy or even need it. John is having an affair with Ann's sexy younger sister, Cynthia (San Giacomo) who seems to resent Ann. Enters Graham (Spader), John's college friend with the unusual hobby of videotaping women while they describe their sexual fantasies and very important skill - he knows how to listen.
I had seen many movies before "sex, lies and videotape" and I've seen plenty since but it has a special place in my memory. It was the first film I had seen that dealt with and talked about very intimate topics of sexuality, satisfaction, jealousy, sisters' relationship, marital problems and loyalty, the secret longings in all of us, and the ever mysterious nature of erotic desire with such level of honesty, openness, and intelligence. The writing, the dialogs, and the acting are superb with James Spader and Laura San Giacomo simply outstanding and Andie McDowell very convincing.
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