2018 Film Essays

Looking Back at Steven Soderbergh’s ‘sex, lies, and videotape’

When Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1989, it was hailed as “one of the freshest American films of the decade.” It was also quite profitable, earning 30 times its budget of $1.2 million. Despite its salacious subject matter — sexuality, infidelity and voyeurism — the movie contains shockingly few sex scenes, but still remains erotically charged nearly 30 years later.

A big part of this is due to the film’s straightforward cinematic style. The camera focuses on faces and conversations, often showing the characters in close up so that the viewer is able to not only connect with the character in that moment, but also see the subtle changes in their facial expressions. Such intimate relationships with the film’s characters are integral to the voyeurism inherent in the “videotape” portion of the film’s title.

Graham Dalton (James Spader) has returned to Baton Rouge, Louisiana after a nine-year absence, where he meets Ann (Andie MacDowell), the wife of his old college friend John (Peter Gallagher). Graham reveals to Ann that he is impotent, but it isn’t until they have developed a friendship that she discovers his secret: he tapes women discussing their sexual history and uses those videotapes to masturbate.

The sexual politics of the film are intertwined with all its characters. Ann is sexually repressed; John is sleeping with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who only seems interested in the affair as a means to one-up her sister. After Cynthia allows Graham to videotape her, John is upset and wonders why his former friend doesn’t just use porn films or magazines to “get off.” As Cynthia points out, however, Graham “has to know the people, he has to be able to interact with them.” It’s a startlingly prescient statement that almost predicts the future rise of internet porn and cam girls. One wonders how differently Graham’s life would have been if he’d been born just a decade later.

As its title implies, much of sex, lies, and videotape is based on looking and being seen. When Graham meets Ann for the first time, he can hardly take his eyes off of her. He points out that Ann is self-conscious, and — when she demurs — he tells her that she’s “extremely aware of people looking at you.” While Graham is content to observe, even going so far as to preserve what he sees through videotapes, he doesn’t want to break the fourth wall of the film, to physically engage with the subjects of his videos. He doesn’t want to connect with the women that he uses as a means to an end: his own sexual pleasure.

After Cynthia allows Graham to videotape her own sexual confessions, she tells Ann that the reason she took her clothes off during the filming is “because I wanted him to see me.” It’s ironic, then, that Graham is so disturbed by watching this video that he can’t get off. Cynthia desires to be seen, not just by Graham, but by her own sister. “You know, I’d like to try your house sometime,” she tells Graham. “The idea of doing it in my sister’s bed gives me a perverse thrill.” If sex, lies, and videotape were to be made now, perhaps Cynthia would have sent nudes to John for Ann to discover when looking at his cell phone.

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While the “lies” portion of the title ostensibly refers to is the lies that the characters tell each other; it also refers to the lies that they tell themselves. Ann has convinced herself she doesn’t like sex, but it’s later revealed that the only reason is because she’s never had an orgasm. Cynthia claims she wants to expose her sister as a “lousy lay,” but by the end of the film, with John out of the picture, they appear closer than ever before. Graham, obsessed with erasing his past as a pathological liar, retreats further into himself and away from others, all in an attempt to “prove” to a (never shown) ex-girlfriend that he’s not the person he was before.

What Graham doesn’t expect is for his problems to affect others. As he tells Ann, “This isn’t supposed to happen. I’ve spent nine years structuring my life so that this didn’t happen.” Now that someone has turned the camera on him (literally, as Ann does), he can no longer lie to himself. Someone has seen him and he can’t hide or look away.

Since Graham’s recordings are the catalyst for the characters’ transformations in sex, lies and, videotape, it’s not surprising that Soderbergh would go on to direct 2018’s Unsane, a film shot entirely on an iPhone 7. Unsane uses modern video technology to tell the story of Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a woman who may or may not be the victim of a stalker named David Frine (Joshua Leonard).

Like sex, lies, and videotape, Unsane uses straightforward closeups to tell its story; at times the footage looks like that of a security camera or, chillingly, a peeping tom. Unsane even wraps cell phone tech into its narrative when a phone becomes a way for Sawyer to lie to her mother and later, to save herself. The idea that the internet allowed Frine to stalk Sawyer is raised when a security consultant instructs her to get rid of all her social media profiles.

The subtext of Unsane then becomes the question of whether or not technology has not only made it easier for stalkers to pursue their prey, but also helped to create stalkers in the first place. By comparison, Graham’s pathology in sex, lies, and videotape feels almost quaint, as do John’s concerns that the footage of women could “end up in the wrong hands.” Yet, it reminds viewers of a time when the internet didn’t loom so large, and allows the deeper issues around sexuality, infidelity and voyeurism to come to the forefront of the film. Thus, rather than seeming dated by its retro technology, Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape feels as fresh and vital as ever.

Sex, lies, and videotape was released on Blu-ray from Criterion last summer.

Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.


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