Sex, Lies and Videotapes (1989)


USA; Steven Soderbergh

Mature Audiences – Mild Sexual Content; Sexual Innuendo ; Strong Langauge

Ann (Andie MacDowell) apparently feels secured and well-provided for in her marriage with the wealthy lawyer John (Peter Gallagher), but her repressed sexual life is a more faithful image of her myriad failures. Indeed, her husband has thrown himself into the bed of her voracious younger sister (Laura San Giacomo) and has accepted without much difficulty Ann’s reticence to let him in her intimacy. The arrival of one of John’s college friends (James Spader), at first an unwelcome intruder for the shy Ann, shatters this fragile and artificial equilibrium by becoming the woman’s confident. Sexuality, a subject previously almost eluded in their household, will eventually unlock the safe that contains the family’s dark secrets, but at what price for the –ironically – impotent and introvert Graham.

Soderbergh crowned debut is rather baffling and atypical, but one would be hard-pressed to pin down what exactly causes the surprise. For anyone familiar with the works of David Lynch (Blue Velvet), Sam Mendes (American Beauty) or even Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), Sex, Lies and Videotapes is like dipping a toe into a warm, dark but slightly familiar pool; it may even wring you a sigh of pleasure when you feel at the bottom the caress of the chilly undertows of intimate secrets and lies. But, all in all, the waters never rise to engulf you and despite initial frisson, the ride feels disappointingly safe. Actually, it might have never been a pool, but only a shallow lily-pond. 

The strength and the charm of the movie ultimately lie in its characters rather than the dynamics of his hackneyed plot. Instead of dragging us down the psychological abyss of bourgeois alienation and existential void, Sodergergh treats us to a light comedy, often stingingly funny in its charge against the hypocrisies of modern life and the ridicule of the barrages we ourselves built against happiness, just to have afterwards an excuse to complain about our miserable existences. 

It may sound grim, but most of the time it isn’t. The performances are uniformly excellent and, overall, the rhythm is brisk and fresh. However, as the disappointing conclusion – a monument of banality, one might be tempted to say – fails to offer another layer of meanings to the tapestry, the viewer may rightfully feel like a young virgin seduced and then treacherously abandoned. However it must be said that, when it comes to the “bored disillusioned bourgeois” genre, we have long ago lost our cinematic virginity…or at least we should have.

Sex lies and videotape poster

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