May 25 2010

sex, lies, and videotape

Haunting and Intimate: 3.5/4

You would expect a film titled sex, lies and videotape to be obscene, if not flat out pornographic.  And while there is virtually no sex and no nudity to speak of, the characters strip themselves bare through the art of intimate conversation.

Made in 1989 by then-newcomer Steven Soderbergh, sex, lies and videotape was amongst the first to bring independent cinema to the mainstream, and put Miramax and the Sundance Film Festival on the map.  In an era of high concept plots, star power and multi-million dollar budgets, sex, lies and videotape was made for just over a million dollars.  Furthermore, the film is driven by dialogue and character development rather than action, or even sex for that matter.  Despite there being no “mainstream appeal”, the film manages to get under your skin in a big way.

sex, lies and videotape opens with plain Jane housewife Ann (Andie MacDowell) talking to her therapist about mundane, trivial preoccupations.  When she hints at sexual frustration, her therapist brings up masturbation, which makes the sweet lil’ homemaker blush and giggle like a young girl.

This prudish sentiment is shattered when Ann’s husband John (Peter Gallagher) invites Graham (James Spader), an old law school friend, to stay at their house for a few days.  Unlike the overly confident yuppie John, Graham lives out of his car, wanders from city to city, and possesses a soft-spoken honesty foreign to the business-minded sharks of the Eighties.  While John enjoys a steamy affair with his wife’s more aggressive sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), Ann forms a platonic relationship with Graham, who reveals to have a fetish for videotaping woman discussing their experiences and thoughts regarding sex.

Spader is no stranger to playing hypnotic characters who come on like sexually fascinated serpents, slithering their way towards an all-too-interested prey.  The character of Graham, an aloof, sensitive bohemian a la Kerouac is one that has popped up in several films after sex, lies, yet Spader manages to keep a firm grasp on his character’s introverted, seductive persona without giving way to parody.

Unlike some of his later erotically charged roles (Secretary comes to mind), Spader is not a menace, nor is he really a deviant.  His videos aren’t sex tapes per se, but frank interviews in which women bare their souls rather than their bodies, though in some cases that happens as well.

Interviews may not sound particularly provocative, yet one must take into consideration the world we live in.  Although we are told that people mean what they say, and sex is an act of intimacy, sex, lies and videotape shows us the unflattering truth, in which people are seldom honest, and sex tends to be more like any other day to day activity.  As a result, the allure of explorative and exploitative conversation is intoxicating and intimately revealing.  Even the likes of John and Cynthia, with all their promiscuity and experience, are profoundly affected with this new concept of nakedness.

But the most profound transformation comes in the form of Ann, who acts as the film’s center.  No one is as much a victim of the gilded façade that is the family values-approved, upper-middle class.  Inhibited and passively prudish as they come, Ann tends to ponder about garbage (“where does it all go?” she asks) and starving children in the third world rather than question her marital happiness or her husband’s fidelity.  Yet her interactions and subsequent interview with Graham leave her a changed person, and MacDowell embodies this transformation with an impressive amount of subtlety and skill.

Ann is just as instrumental to the film as Graham, as an interviewer is only as successful as their interviewee.  Though no stranger to therapy, Ann often goes through her sessions without saying anything of worth.  Then again, she isn’t asked anything of worth by her therapist either.  Graham’s gentle, intrusive questions inspire a strength and demand for truth within Ann, and in the end she proves to be Graham’s greatest subject by turning the tables, or camera, on him, thus becoming his equal.

Like its quiet seducer, sex, lies and videotape comes across a world where conversations are as casual as the sex had by its inhabitants and shakes it up.  The film takes a thorough look into its characters darkly, and as a result, a new understanding to the ins and outs of intimacy are revealed to its audience.  It is difficult to picture a conversation, in a film or otherwise, that is so personal that it manages to be provocative and intrusive without being obscene.  sex, lies and videotape does so beautifully, and calls into question all the boundaries we place between us and those around us.  In a world where being open and honest is still something habitually said and never done, the film’s message still resonates today, twenty-odd years later.

One Response to “sex, lies, and videotape”

  • p.louise Says:

    slv is probably my favorite movie, definitely in the top three, of all time and your review of it was perfect. You succinctly stated in writing what I so like about this movie. Thanks for the wonderful review of this interesting film.

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