sex, lies and videotape

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Unfulfilled housewife Ann Bishop-Mullany is forced to confront her fears about sex when her husband John invites old acquaintance Graham to stay. Although Graham isn’t actively threatening – indeed, he’s impotent – Ann is both intrigued and disturbed by the stranger and his voyeuristic hobbies. Meanwhile, John conducts an affair with Ann’s liberated sister Cynthia – but for how long can he keep Ann in the dark?

On the surface, John and Ann Mullany (Peter Gallagher and Andie MacDowell) are the financially-successful embodiment of the 80s American Dream, but you don’t have to delve too deeply to find the fault lines: while she gave up her job (at John’s suggestion), leaving her plenty of time to fret about the world’s problems and her lack of a sex life, John is having it all ways, raking in the cash as a lawyer and fooling around with Ann’s ‘extrovert’ sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

When John’s friend Graham (James Spader) comes to stay, he makes a curious first impression: he wears black, grows his hair long and doesn’t appear to work; stranger still – as Ann discovers to her disgust – Graham overcomes his impotence by videotaping women talking about their sex lives (and sometimes providing a more practical demonstration). Not sharing her sister’s hang-ups, Cynthia introduces herself to Graham, indirectly sparking off a catastrophic chain of events for John and Ann’s marriage. However, is the frank-seeming videographer quite the plain dealer he seems?

It doesn’t happen often, thankfully, but I’m altogether stymied by Sex, Lies, and Videotape. On the one hand, it’s a movie that, despite its sit-up-and-beg title, is much coyer about the physical act than it might have been. Instead, surrounding John and Cynthia’s trysts there’s an awful lot of talking about sex: Ann to her therapist, Cynthia to Ann, Graham’s subjects to his camcorder. As such, you wonder at times if film is even the right medium for the tale, or whether it could have been equally well presented as a play or radio play. Apart from the fact that the women seem to feel they can be completely free and honest in front of Graham’s camera, no great play is made of the invasive yet seductive power of the lens, which appears to be an opportunity lost when you think about the questions a film like Peeping Tom asks of viewers and filmmakers alike.

Initially, too, the symbolism of the film feels wearily overt and mundane. Graham, the no-possessions drifter, is an obvious negative image of the wealthy John: Graham is blond and wears a black shirt and jeans; John is brown-haired and wears white shirts and businesslike braces. As Ann discovers John’s lies and goes in search of answers from Graham, the change is represented by Ann removing her white clothes and going to the dark side – of her wardrobe.

As the characters (metaphorically) reveal themselves, however, things begin to click into place. Even though none of the characters are particularly warm or cuddly, Soderbergh tells his quietly tragic, intimate tale of fibbing, philandering and floundering adults with calm authority, the actors responding with naturalistic, low-key performances. John’s comeuppance is rather satisfying, as is Cynthia’s increasing self-respect, whilst Ann’s journey – the real thrust of the film – is involving and credible (MacDowell, much maligned in other roles, is thoroughly convincing here). Graham is a more difficult character to get a handle on – he has to contend with an absolutely shocking mullet, for one thing – but his shifting motivations make him interesting too, even if his ultimate reward doesn’t feel entirely deserved.

Soderbergh (26 when he made the film) treats his subject with remarkable maturity, but Sex, Lies, and Videotape is not without lighter moments. There are some nice jokes, whether from the hopeless barfly (Steven Brill) who infests the bar where Cynthia works or, more subtly, in Ann’s sexual hang-ups (see how she abuses her wine glass) supposedly stemming from global ecological crises; I’m also convinced that the treatment she gives the mixer tap in the kitchen is intentionally Freudian. Finally, the director also livens up an otherwise unshowy film by using Graham’s videos to play cleverly with structure, playing events out of sequence so that we learn what’s happening at the same time as the characters.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a curious piece. It’s peopled with well-heeled, self-obsessed characters who don’t exactly demand sympathy (like the later Closer), and the pace and tone are both fairly glacial; on the other hand, while it doesn’t have the dramatic pull of a piece like The Ice Storm, it’s a film which handles its adult themes intelligently, especially impressive considering this was Soderbergh’s debut feature. It’s really not something that I can either recommend or caution against; but its individual, independent aesthetic absolutely makes it worth a watch.

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