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USA 1989
Directed by
Steven Soderbergh
96 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Sex, Lies And Videotape

Steven Soderbergh’s low budget first feature is a benchmark in what came to be known as the “indie film” category - small scale, offbeat, candid but heart-warming stories of the everyday that clearly stand apart from the glossy mainstream Hollywood norm. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, making first-time writer-director Soderbergh at twenty-six the youngest filmmaker to take home the prize, and went on to be a huge commercial hit, kick-starting a career that has demonstrated that its success was no accident.

James Spader plays Graham, a drifter of sorts, who has returned to his home town and comes to stay at the home of his once-best buddy John (Peter Gallagher) now a yuppie lawyer. John’s wife Ann (Andie MacDowell) is having therapy and is generally unhappy with the marriage and she finds Graham’s quietly probing ways unsettling. When she finds out that he likes to tape women talking about their sex lives she will not have anything to do with him. Her trampy sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), with whom John is having an affair, on the other hand, finds it a turn on. Ann slowly gets drawn into the situation.

Soderbergh tells the story of the significant transformation of the lives of his four characters with marvellous economy both as a writer and director. In hindsight one can see that the use of videotape is not just a plot device but exemplifies the director’s ongoing interest in representation and identity, whilst a good deal of the efficacy of the film comes from the resonant sound design another aspect that characterizes Soderbergh’s subsequent work.

Another key element of the film’s success was the casting of Andie MacDowell, whose beauty and apparent fragility makes her a perfect choice for the lead female (the persona became her stock in trade most notably in Groundhog Day in 1993 and Four Weddings And A Funeral in 1994).  Opposite her, James Spader, is also very good as the intense young man who, so to speak, penetrates her veil. These two are the main act and Soderbergh’s portrayal of their first physical encounters is poignantly handled. On the other hand, the characters played by Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo are simply their foils.

If perhaps all a little too neat to carry much dramatic weight, this is not the indie film’s agenda, which is to show in 96 minutes or thereabouts that the best things in life are free. Sex, Lies and Videotape fits the bill perfectly.




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