sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Starring Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo

Soderbergh’s camera sidles up to its targets in sex, lies, and videotape, like a bold young boy putting an arm around a girl whose name he doesn’t know. Perpetually on edge, always a little antsy, given to slow approaches into a character’s face from above or from some low angle, the star of sex, lies, and videotape is the machine. In keeping with the metaphor, not every move he has works. sex, lies, and videotape is a little worked up about its central premise, which is more thought experiment than story and which makes a different camera the unlikely star. Graham (Spader) has given up on actual intercourse after a bad experience with a woman named Elizabeth, and instead films women telling him about their thoughts and experiences in that venue. Soderbergh has his finger on the pulse of something in those moments, in the obverse and reverse of pleasure and horror that comes from seeing representations of people we have already known in the flesh. This isn’t a new idea by any stretch of the imagination—almost thirty years earlier, my personal favorite example of this idea is used magnificently in Peeping Tom, even if the idea was old then—but Soderbergh recognizes through Graham the potent mixture of fantasy and memory. But this is not a powerful movie, nor a moving one. Elizabeth takes on greater and greater importance as the film progresses, and what must have seemed like noirish mystery in the writing process is little better than a writing flaw; a MacGuffin in the plot can be enormously effective (as in The 39 Steps), but a MacGuffin as character motivation is a copout. Fortunately, even if the film’s conceptual framework is essentially dull technical exoticism, that camera knows how it ought to move.

I have seen a thousand scenes of characters in therapy before, but I’ve never seen one that interested me until I saw Ann (MacDowell), head turned, smiling nervously, a little frustrated, more than a little chastened. Her therapist is helpful in a distracted sort of way; Ron Vawter plays him as someone who is genuinely trying to do his job but who also cannot hide how attracted he is to her. MacDowell has a part worthy of her in this movie, or at least one that she seizes in this early scene. I’ve gone most of my life assuming she wasn’t a particularly good actress because of Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral, and based on this movie it seems much more likely that the typecasting monster ate her up after this. In this scene, I know Ann. Maybe she’s not from Gaffney, South Carolina, like MacDowell is (also the Peachoid), but there is a real person under there, a genuine representation of the early-30s housewife whose lawyer husband is falling away from her and who goes to therapy to talk about why she’s grasping for control in all scenarios. She could have gone to Clemson or Auburn but it’s more likely she met John (Peter Gallagher) at Furman or Samford. She is the picture of someone whose upbringing has favored words like “attractiveness” and “hospitality” and “smile” over “reflection” or “challenge.” She has visions of garbage begetting garbage and nowhere to put parent and child; she has already confessed in an earlier session her concerns for “the families of airline fatalities.” She was happiest when she let go of some of the control of her life (a time when she put on twenty-five pounds), and since losing it has turned into a person a couple of years—or a single houseguest—away from flinty.

Her sister, Cynthia (San Giacomo) is almost as interesting but much less realistic. For one thing, her voice never quite fits in with the rest of the film, which is clearly Southern and she is clearly carpetbagging. (Maybe this is how British people feel watching Game of Thrones.) For another, she is much too neat a foil for her sister, and there is an awful lot of dialogue which is some variant on “Oh my God, Cynthia!” because of how shocking she must appear to be to her bourgeois family. And I suppose if I were related to someone who willingly masturbated on camera in front of a guy she’d just met, I would be a little surprised. (The film is a little uncomfortable with how casual Cynthia is about sex, which I like to think is just the politics of the time sneaking through as opposed to some stronger opinion the movie itself has.) The movie kills time expressing the differences between the two sisters, but it elevates to its greatest heights when it sees their similarities, their desperation to open up to someone and have their most intimate thoughts heard by someone who promises not to let them out.

Here’s Ann at a second therapy session:

And here’s Cynthia as she starts to get comfortable talking to Graham:

Soderbergh will give us the hint we didn’t need later in the film, when the camera is angled so that it appears Cynthia and John are standing up when they’re lying down on a bed together. We’ve seen it here first, as they curl up on these couches, one bundling herself up under her bedsheet of a dress to hit herself, the other barelegged and running her fingers over her knees. In both cases, the camera begins at angle from them—from above Ann and from Cynthia’s right—and the shot tells all the story we need to know. It’s breathtakingly elegant, although it’s so powerful that it makes most of the scenes where Ann and Cynthia appear together feel limp by comparison. A line about a missing pearl earring was always the real reason to give Ann and Cynthia room to fight, but it’s so clear that the missing earring will matter that the entire scene feels empty. The scenes at the bar are almost entirely useless. But these two scenes, which compare against short-term memory instead of against performance, are the best part of the movie. Graham hovers over both, although he’s largely unseen in them. In the former, of course, Ann is at therapy and Graham is nowhere to be found; in the latter, Cynthia is much more the focus of the camera and our attention than the smooth voice asking her questions.

Graham, sadly, is not much more important to the plot of the movie than the pearl earring that signals John’s adultery to Ann. He exists as a way to break up Ann and John, to shake them up, and in Spader’s hands he’s a little more comatose than the movie can afford him the license to be. He carries himself with a powerful sense of self-righteousness, certain that he has managed to give himself a way to act morally and shake off the devil in his past; the fact that this is not true is less important than the fact that it is not terribly interesting. What’s interesting is that Graham is attractive enough, either in his appearance or his attitude, to convince other people to open up to him without resorting to outright sexiness. In that round face with cowlike eyes it’s impossible to find, I dunno, Rudolph Valentino, which is not to say this would be better if we replaced one for the other. But it means that the movie has no serious plan for what it will do after Graham loses control of his experiment, once the camera has been turned on him instead. Spader’s performance sits in neutral so long that revving up the car seems anticlimactic, and the fact that he lets go of the steering wheel so someone else can drive is not particularly compelling.

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