The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance! Today, I take a look at 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, which won both the Audience Award at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and the Palme d’Or at Cannes!
The directorial debut of Steven Soderbergh, sex, lies, and videotape is considered by many to be one of the most important independent American films ever made. Not only was it a success at the box office and nominated for an Oscar but it also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. According to Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, the success of sex, lies, and videotape is what convinced Hollywood that independent films could be big business. The marketing of the film would set the template for almost every independent release that followed.
(One person who was definitely not a fan of sex, lies, and videotape was director Spike Lee. When Lee’s Do The Right Thing lost the Palme to Soderbergh’s film, Lee was informed that the Canne jury felt Lee’s film wasn’t “socially responsible.” “What’s so socially responsible about a pervert filming women!?” Lee reportedly responded.)
sex, lies, and videotape tells the story of four people in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Ann (Andie MacDowell) has a nice house, a successful husband, and an absolutely miserable marriage. When the film opens, she’s having a session with her therapist (Ron Vawter) and talking about how unfulfilled she feels. When the therapist asks her questions about her sex life, Ann laughs nervously. She says that she likes sex but she doesn’t like to think about it. She says she doesn’t see what the big deal is. Later, she reveals that she’s never had an orgasm.
John (Peter Gallagher) is Ann’s husband. He’s a lawyer. He’s also a materialistic jerk and … well, that’s pretty much the sum total of John’s entire personality.
Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) is John’s mistress. She’s a bartender at a rather sleazy little establishment, where she apparently spends all of her time listening to a local drunk (Steven Brill) do a Marlon Brando impersonation. She is uninhibited and fiercely sexual. She’s the opposite of Ann, which is why John likes her. Of course, she’s also Ann’s sister. Cynthia and Ann have a strained relationship. Ann describes Cynthia as being “loud.” Cynthia views Anne as being judgmental. Secretly, both wish that they could be more like the other.
And then there’s Graham (James Spader). Graham was John’s friend in college, though it’s difficult to understand why. Graham has recently returned to Baton Rouge and John, without talking to Ann, has invited Graham to visit them. Graham is apparently a drifter. (Ann describes him as being “arty.”) While Ann is helping him find an apartment, Graham informs her that he’s impotent. He can’t get an erection if anyone else in the room.
Ann subsequently discovers that Graham deals with his impotence by videotaping women discussing their sex lives. The video camera allows Graham to keep his distance and not get emotionally involved. (Of course, it also serves as a metaphor for directing a movie.) Ann is freaked out by all of Graham’s tapes. Cynthia is intrigued. And John … well, John’s just a jerk.
sex, lies, and videotape is a film that’s largely saved by its cast. Graham is a role that literally only James Spader could make intriguing. Meanwhile, Peter Gallagher actually manages to bring some charm to John, who is the least developed character and who gets all of the script’s worst lines. That said, the film really belongs to MacDowell and San Giacomo, who are totally believable as sisters and who, again, bring some needed depth to characters that, as written, could have been reduced to being mere clichés. (In the scenes between MacDowell and San Giacomo, it was less about what they said than how they said it.)
As I already stated, this was Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut. Soderbergh was 26 years old when he made this. Seen today, it’s an uneven but ultimately intriguing film. There are a few scenes where Soderbergh’s inexperience as a filmmaker comes through. For instance, John is written as being such a complete heel (and, in his final scene, he wears a ludicrous bow tie that practically screams, “EVIL,”) that it occasionally throws the film off-balance. You never believe that Graham would have been his friend, nor do you believe that Ann would have spent years putting up with his crap. The film’s final scene between Cynthia and Ann also feels a bit rushed and perfunctory. That said, this film shows that, from the start, Soderbergh was good with actors. Visually, Soderbergh takes a low-key approach and allows the cast to be the center of attention. It’s an actor’s film and Soderbergh wisely gets out of their way. In particular, Spader and San Giacomo have a way of making the most heavy-handed dialogue sound totally and completely natural.
It’s hard to imagine Soderbergh directing something like sex, lies, and videotape today. If the film were made today, Soderbergh wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to use overexposed film stock and to give cameos to George Clooney as Ann’s therapist and Matt Damon as the drunk. sex, lies, and videotape is a film that Soderbergh could only have made when he was young and still struggling to make his voice heard. It’s a flawed by intriguing film. If just for its historical significance, it’s a film that every lover of independent cinema should see at least once.
Previous Sundance Film Reviews: