Square One: Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Movies Features Steven Soderbergh
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Square One: Steven Soderbergh&#8217;s <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i> (1989)

Whenever a filmmaker of note premieres a new film, it’s a good time to revisit that director’s debut to gauge how far they’ve come as an artist. With Logan Lucky currently in theaters, we take a look back at Steven Soderbergh’s Palme d’Or winner. The following article contains spoilers for that film.

In title and premise, Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape sounds like sudsy erotica. Its plot follows a sexually repressed housewife, Anne (Andie MacDowell), who, caught in a loveless marriage with a husband (Peter Gallagher) cheating on her with Cynthia, her sister (Laura San Giacomo), finds herself drawn to one of her husband’s old college pals, Graham (James Spader). Temporarily crashing at her place, the guy is gentle and sensitive where her husband is callous and selfish. He also happens to enjoy videotaping women while they talk about their sex lives. Upon finding out about his fetish, the wife is initially repulsed, but she can’t stop thinking about him and his unusual pastime as their lives become increasingly entangled.

You can see where this is going. Or so you think. The genius of Soderbergh’s debut lies in the way it subverts the libidinous trappings of sexed-up cinema to expose souls in pain, tapping into the psychology and emotion that underpin erotic impulse. Here, the figure of the housewife evokes a deeper fantasy, of a prudish woman’s sexual awakening, but the film doesn’t play that out. Likewise, Anne’s sister isn’t simply an amorous siren, nor is the college friend a late-’80s Christian Grey—they look like soft-core archetypes, but they become something else entirely: dysfunctional individuals in search of real intimacy.

Slowly and with an arresting unpredictability, Soderbergh brings us into the lives of these characters, peeling back layer upon layer of appearances. Though the film is more of an ensemble piece, the housewife Anne is the closest the movie has to a protagonist. We are introduced to her within a therapy session, as she raves about garbage. She is fixated by trash, practically spitting in disgust at the thought of it. Amidst this rant, her marriage comes up. So does the fact that she doesn’t have sex with her husband anymore, an abstinence that began not because she pulled back but because he stopped touching her. We know he’s cheating on her, and, we suspect with nearly 100% certainty, so does she—the rhetoric of garbage and its removal could scarcely be more transparent. And yet, she refuses to move past the veil of metaphor, repressing the truth beneath talk of refuse.

In a single scene, Soderbergh has laid out Anne’s full, heartbreaking story. The way she steers the conversation away from her life smacks of denial, and her mania over being rid of garbage reveals her personality: pathologically high maintenance, perhaps with touches of obsessive-compulsion. In general, infidelity is a piercing betrayal. For Anne, however, it’s soul-shaking. This one scene foreshadows what will be more explicitly alluded to later in the film, that her husband’s unfaithfulness hasn’t merely upended her life but shattered her self-concept, her ideal of being in control. She tries to put on a facile front, but truth is, she doesn’t know herself anymore.

It is into this marital and emotional mess that Graham enters, providing Anne with something she probably hasn’t seen in a long time: a listening and empathetic ear. They strike up what seems to be a friendship, and the thrilling, taboo possibility of genuine emotional intimacy is suggested in a brilliant snippet of editing early in the movie. In the first shot of this segment, we see Cynthia and Gallagher’s cheating husband in the throes of passion. The sound of a woman’s voice then enters, asking, “Can I share something personal?” We can’t be sure that it is Cynthia who has spoken (her hair is blocking her mouth), but we assume it is since the shot is of her and private confession is the kind of thing that wouldn’t feel out of place within this context.

But then we hear Graham answer, and we realize that what we had heard had been a bridge to the next scene, in which Anne, the actual person who had asked the question, is chatting with Graham over a cup of coffee. This moment of sublime misleading articulates the full complexity of Anne’s desire in just two shots. On one level, the playing of Anne’s voice over an image of Cynthia and the husband visualizes the state in which Anne wished she were but isn’t—loved and in love. On another level, it shows us what is on her mind, consuming her, driving her to reach out to this total stranger, to have a conversation of the sort that she doesn’t have with her husband anymore—or maybe never did.

What she and Graham talk about is sex. In public and in broad daylight, the two chat frankly and with decreasing shyness about each other’s thoughts on the topic, their reservations and curiosities. If the purpose of Sex, Lies, and Videotape had been sleaze, this openness of conversation would likely have prefigured some form of sexual liberation for the housewife, a break from stifling social mores in favor of kinky sex with an attractive stranger. Soderbergh has much more on his mind than mere titillation, however, and where his film becomes most thought-provoking is precisely where other erotic works might have turned the most salacious.

When Graham enters the picture, he brings with him the idea of total honesty as a counterpoint to the deception in which Anne’s husband deals, an honesty that reaches its embodiment in the “videotape” of the film’s title. During Graham’s videotaping sessions, women recount their sexual adventures to him. Sometimes, they do more than just that on camera. At first glance, this setup sounds like little more than an exhibitionist/voyeuristic fantasy, but for Graham, the significance is deeper. When he talks to Anne at the diner, he shares that he is sexually impotent, and, in the movie’s climactic scene, it is revealed that this condition resulted from chronic lying. The exact psychosomatic cause of his ailment isn’t specified, nor is it relevant. What is important is that, as with Anne, failed transparency has led to failed intimacy, a lack that he tries to remedy through videotape. The dynamic between him and his subjects is intriguing, because, on the one hand, he seeks genuine interpersonal connection with the women he interviews—at one point, it is revealed that Graham insists on knowing and interacting with his subjects before filming them—and yet, he never touches his interviewees, hiding instead behind the mediation provided by both the camera and the recording session setup. There is, in other words, the desire for contact without physical contact.

Graham is played by a young Spader, who, with camera in hand, a button-down shirt and a mop of blonde hair, bears an uncanny resemblance to David Hemmings from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up. The likeness might very well have been intentional: In Antonioni’s film, there is a famous scene in which a photoshoot between Hemmings’ fashion photographer Thomas and the model Veruschka von Lehndorff all but culminates in sexual intercourse, with Thomas’s camera lens becoming a de facto phallus and the gaze the mode of erotic contact. Graham, though less animated in his shooting than Thomas, similarly desires to substitute the camera for actual sex—and yet, Thomas appears to attain rapture in Blow-Up while Graham remains unfulfilled. When he plays back the videos of his female subjects, he sits naked, but never in ecstasy. At one point, he even has tears in his eyes.

As Anne and Graham’s individual emotional journeys bring them tighter and tighter into each other’s orbit, a third character completes an arc of her own on the margins, underlining the vastness of Soderbergh’s empathy. Cynthia, ostensibly the archetypal temptress/villainess, is granted surprising depth as a character. At one point, she sneers at her sister’s allegedly holier-than-thou demeanor after having sex with the husband, revealing bitterness and spite as motivations for her homewrecking. Later, she drops by Graham’s place in the hopes of seducing him but ends up agreeing to be recorded. The experience transforms her, leading her to reflect on the empty carnality of her affair and the lack of genuine connection between her and her lover. In describing why she decides to masturbate on camera for Graham, she utters a line that encapsulates the desire driving every sympathetic character in the film: “I wanted him to see me.”

For Cynthia and Graham, the quest to be seen leads to a climactic moment of self-reckoning in which each forces the other to exorcise their demons on Graham’s camera before crawling, broken, into one another’s arms. It is implied that they have sex, and, in an ingenious gesture, Soderbergh has Graham turn off his own camera prior to lovemaking. Here is a character who has, for so much of his life, sought intimacy in images, trying to fill his own lack by looking in on the lives of others. When he does find deep, true connection, it is his to treasure and experience firsthand, and thus has no need to objectify the incident via videotape.

In refusing to show us the culminating sex act, Soderbergh enacts Graham’s newfound realization for us, too, completing the film’s subversion of the erotica genre by respecting the characters’ privacy and, in doing so, making a case for intimacy as something that’s too personal and ineffable to be fully captured on camera. What we see in Sex, Lies, and Videotape is beautiful—what we don’t is moreso.

Jonah Jeng is a writer and film studies graduate student whose work has been featured in Reverse Shot, The Film Stage, Taste of Cinema and Film Matters. For him, joy is found in the company of loved ones, the enchantment of cinema and the wholesale consumption of avocado egg rolls.

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