By Liz Miller (La Crossse, WI, US)
In his full-length debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, writer-director Steven Soderbergh shows steadfast focus on the study of the intertwining and complex lives of his four characters, even though the film was initially marketed to a mainstream audience as an “erotic comedy.” The film should not be so simply categorized. There are humorous moments, but a laugh out loud comedy this film is not. And despite its title, there is no superfluous nudity. Soderbergh’s writing, presented by a phenomenal cast, is all that is necessary in order to impress those who can appreciate an original and honest film.
Soderbergh begins to expose his characters almost immediately. Innocent, anxiety-ridden Ann (Andie MacDowell) is seen sitting on a couch in her therapist’s office discussing her obsessive thoughts. During this particular session, she expresses her concern about all of the garbage in the world; she is afraid that there isn’t enough space. She does recognize that her obsessive thoughts are irrational, but suggests that being without this psychic pain isn’t much better.
The film cuts to her husband John (Peter Gallagher) spinning his wedding ring on his office desk, as if to suggest that he is responsible for some of her anxiety. Later, as a voice-over, Ann speaks of her disinterest in sex, and we see John fooling around with Ann’s jealous sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). And, within the first ten minutes the viewer has a solid base to build upon their understanding of three of the four characters in the film.
It should be noted that during this opening sequence the fourth character, Graham (James Spader), is primarily seen driving to visit John. Nothing is really learned of him. But, this mystery surrounding him seems fitting. It’s important that the viewer slowly explores the depths of Graham as the film progresses, because his eccentricities require the most attention.
Graham is selectively uninhibited. During the second day that he visits with Ann, he tells her that he is impotent. She later learns that he enjoys videotaping women as they discuss their sexual experiences, and that he watches these tapes while alone. But, he is not open to discussing the root of his impotence and damage, the issue that truly needs to be discussed.
Both, Graham and Ann, harbor intimacy issues. Soderbergh displays this commonality, subtly. Their relationship grows slowly, with moments where a pitch perfect MacDowell as Ann shows disgust for Graham’s behavior, yet fights the desire that she feels for her elusive new friend.
Even though this is possibly MacDowell at her best, and the supporting actors do a stellar job, this is incontestably James Spader’s film. It is safe to say that a less-skilled actor may have accidently interpreted the character as being a dispassionate creep, or the direct opposite of what Soderbergh had seemingly envisioned. Yet, Spader managed to avoid this snag that would have been the cause of the films’ failure.
Among many other moments, Spader’s talent is obvious toward the end of the film when Graham admits that he has certain issues. He states, “You’re right, I’ve got a lot of problems, but they belong to me.” Such dialogue requires honesty and understanding of the character being represented. He understands that Graham’s idiosyncrasies are rooted in a deep sadness developed over time due to his inability to cope with a love lost nine years prior, and therefore the viewer will understand as well.
There are no elaborate camera shots or special effects, no gratuitous violence or explosions. Likely, some may yearn for these elements that the film refuses to offer. Others may be put-off by the unreserved writing. But for those who prefer to watch an incredibly well-written and well-acted, bare bones film, this intense character study should not be missed.