Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Director Steve Soderbergh is now one of our most established filmmakers and one of the few to find relative working freedom in Hollywood's unforgiving power structure. Soderbergh takes on all kinds of projects from expensive mainstream thrillers to science fiction remakes to personal movie experiments filmed on video. He's also served as the director of photography on a number of his films. Soderbergh's not the kind of director who signs up to do a Bond picture, as so many seem to have done to energize their careers. Perhaps someone like John Sayles has stayed more true to the independent ethic, but making films with the likes of George Clooney, et. al., have won Soderbergh added wiggleroom in a confining industry. Going back to the well for Ocean's Thirteen may have enabled him to produce last year's remarkable Che movies (coming soon from Criterion).
Back in 1989 Soderbergh hit the scene as a key figure in the newly emerging Independent Film scene. After directing a movie about the music group Yes, he put this show together by writing a script that attracted actors in need of breakout roles. James Spader was stuck playing snide collegiate-age villains and ex-model Andie MacDowell was considered an acting washout after her entire performance in Greystoke was redubbed by Glenn Close. Soderbergh's tiny movie project didn't play well with money-minded Hollywood agents. Newcomer Laura San Giacomo had to threaten to change representation to get her agency to cooperate.
Filmed in Baton Rouge Louisiana, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a relationship movie with a clever script that makes an asset of modest resources. The story stays focused on four main characters in a handful of principal settings. The camerawork is attractive but un-showy and no fancy editing or effects tricks are utilized. It's all about the four leads, each of which gets plenty of face time to emote Soderbergh's excellent dialogue.
The movie is about sexual-social dysfunction among adults in the new age of sexual candor. Married housewife Ann Mullaney (Andie MacDowell) is uncomfortable with sex and must be coaxed by her analyst (Ron Vawter) to talk about it. She feels something is not right with her husband John (Peter Gallagher), but isn't sure it's not her imagination. As it turns out, John is callously unfaithful to Ann and smugly confident that she will not find out. He tomcats away from his duties as an attorney to spend time with the uninhibited Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who happens to be Ann's sister.
The situational dynamic is complicated. Ann and Cynthia don't get along, as Ann disapproves of Cynthia's blunt talk about sexuality and lax commitment to their mother. Cynthia has pegged her sister as an uptight bore. Although Cynthia's affair bears no intentional malice toward Ann, she's clearly getting back at her sister on some level, while satisfying her own urges.
The catalyst that interrupts this triangle comes straight from the cinema school of cinematic contrivances, yet works within the context of the story. Ann is upset that John has invited an old college friend to stay with them while he searches for an apartment of his own. Graham Dalton (James Spader) turns out to be not another annoying ex- frat boy like John, but a sensitive and somewhat enigmatic loner, a drifter who deflects direct questions about himself. Graham shows no interest in reconnecting with his old local girlfriend, and spends a lot of time alone in his new apartment. Ann is intrigued, while Cynthia sees him as a potential new conquest. John thinks Graham is just weird.
John's right, but Graham's weirdness is made for the movies, as it were. He harbors a Peeping Tom- like obsession that both Ann and Cynthia, in their independent contact with him, find fascinating. Graham has been videotaping women he meets answering intimate questions about their sexuality and what turns them on. It's his substitute for a normal sex life -- he's impotent, but only around other people. Graham's gentle and benign manner impresses both women -- the reckless Cynthia almost immediately volunteers to become one of Graham's videotape love objects, while Ann's initial reaction is fear and revulsion. But Ann and Graham also sense that they have a strong mutual attraction.
Soderbergh's film would at first seem to place the multi-sided love triangle in simple soap opera terms: John is a despicable cad, Cynthia is a reckless menace and Ann is a faultless old-fashioned lady experiencing difficulties in liberated times. Odd Freak Out Graham is the catalyst that upsets the kettle -- he's sexually dysfunctional and engaged in a daring audiovisual sex world of his own invention. A liberal interpretation of the romantic outcomes forgives all the characters with the excuse that sexuality has no logic and a stable relationship needs a deeper foundation based on trust. Thus the clueless but honest Ann gravitates toward the "dangerously candid" Graham, while Cynthia learns her lesson and expresses a sincere desire to atone for her disloyalty. John is chastened by a video confrontation with his spouse, whom he discovers has sensual dimensions he never bothered to investigate. John's excuse for adultery, that Ann was frigid, is completely undercut.
A popular hit and a hot discussion topic in 1989, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is fairly conventional in moral terms. We're encouraged to thrill at John and Cynthia's risky shenanigans, within reason: "Well, get your balls in the air and get your butt over here." Although nobody has to commit suicide or be run over by a truck as would occur in soaps from earlier decades, comeuppances are meted out to guilty parties. John is a big loser at home and at work, and forfeits his playmate as well. Cynthia (rather inconsistently but charmingly) matures a bit in her appreciation of interpersonal responsibilities. Graham and Ann finish in sort of a trendy limbo, sitting cool and comfortable on a porch step, each a mellow individual yet comfortable as a potential couple. Undefined and amorphous relationships with no discernable future always look good in the movies. I almost want Graham to turn to Ann and say, "You know, I've got a lot more kinky ideas I haven't told you yet ..." For all she knows, he's been crisscrossing the country in his convertible because he's on the run from the law. I mean, he's a guy obsessed with not having too many keys to worry about.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape really hit the spot in 1989, winning major awards at Cannes and putting Soderbergh and his distributor Miramax in the industry spotlight. Besides the Palm D'Or for Soderbergh, James Spader won as best actor. He, Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo would each be rewarded with a major career boost.
Sony's Blu-ray allows home video viewers the ability to see just how well photographed Sex, Lies and Videotape is. Cinematographer Walt Lloyd's close-ups are attractive, as are the film's nicely distinguished sets -- Ann's country-perfect house, Graham's unfurnished apartment. Lloyd and Soderbergh manage an intimate style unhindered by its relatively limited budget. The show never seems claustrophobic.
The extras begin with a commentary from 1998 with Soderbergh and director Neil LaBute. Their talk drifts away into the general problems of directing but Soderbergh can be depended on for fascinating talk -- as on his commentary with Mike Nichols on Catch-22. The director also offers commentary for a single deleted scene between Ann and her analyst. A Sundance short about a 20 year Reunion is too short; we barely get a look at director and his assembled cast, all of whom came except for James Spader.
Soderbergh appears on camera to comment on his actors, the movie's title and its sex content. A BD-Live PIP trivia track is offered as the final extra, along with a text description of the restoration steps. The only disappointing thing I could find about this slick release is its cover, an unflattering photo of Ms. MacDowell.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sex, Lies and Videotape Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: commentary, trivia track, reunion featurette, Soderbergh interview.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 16, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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