24th Aug2018

‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo, Peter Gallagher | Written and Directed by Steven Soderbergh


Another chance to see where it all began for (a then 26-year-old) Steven Soderbergh comes in the form of this sumptuous box set from Criterion. They might have missed a trick by not housing it in a Betmax-style case, but otherwise it’s a tidy package. The film’s not bad, either.

Anne (Andie MacDowell) is in therapy. She’s gone off sex with her husband, John (Peter Gallagher), who she suspects is sleeping with her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Her suspicions are correct. One day, John’s old buddy Graham (James Spader) comes to town. John and Graham were once very similar, but at a specific point their paths diverged. Graham meets Anne and is instantly direct. “How do you like being married?” he asks, and she struggles to find answers.

Graham and Anne hit it off. They discuss gender, sex and relationships. They play games of Truth (forget about the Dare). Anne reveals that she doesn’t regard sex as important, which is a relief for Graham, because he’s impotent – an interesting counterpoint to John, who is oversexed. Once Cynthia hears of Graham she intends to prey upon him, especially when she gathers that Anne finds him appealing. The sisters are locked in a perennial conflict.

Cynthia meets Graham and discovers his strange hobby. Here’s where the “Videotape” comes in: Graham performs taped interviews with women he meets. He asks them for their most intimate secrets. Graham’s dubious pastime is the trigger for all of the intrigue and heartbreak that follows – of which there is plenty.

Graham has chosen a creepy hobby, for sure, especially when we realise that he’s getting satisfaction from hearing about his subjects’ very first intimate experiences. Graham’s tapes are a form of control, maybe abuse. His impotency is not a physical ailment – we know this because he jacks off to the tapes in private. So it is a private perversion masquerading as something sensual, something with innocent intentions. No wonder Graham is so reluctant to film Anne, the one woman whose purity he doesn’t want to corrupt.

Sex, Lies and Videotape is a story about two very different but equally dangerous styles of misogyny. John’s is extroverted; his rampant lust and objectification of women is flagrant and physical. Graham’s is more complex, in some ways more sinister. Graham’s fascination with female sexuality is born of fear. He is terrified of revealing himself so he focuses on making others reveal themselves. His interview questions have the air of refreshing simplicity, but never would he dare turn them on himself. Instead, he intellectualises his own desires as a means of avoidance.

John is fearful too. He is threatened by Graham’s access to the inner lives of women. He’s jealous of that intimacy. John’s real fear isn’t that someone will satisfy a woman he possesses physically, but emotionally. He can’t retaliate against it because he can’t provide it. John’s misunderstanding of Graham –that Graham is playing an underhand “game” – speaks of misogyny in general: the assumption is that sexual choice lies solely with the man, and that this is an assumption shared naturally by all men.

Men come off looking pretty lousy overall. An adulterer; a creep obsessed with his ex; and a letch in a bar. That said, Cynthia is more than happy to play the men at their own game. Shark-like, she’s constantly on the move, consuming every male in her path. Anne’s feelings about men and sex – her overwhelming repression – is bound up in her repulsion of Cynthia. It’s the antics of Graham that draw her out. In the end her vindication, and her revenge on John, is vicariously meted out on Graham. It’s a moving climax, in more than one sense of the word.

With a gorgeous ambient score by Cliff Martinez, Soderbergh’s film is a work of quiet intrigue, something reflected in his restful lens. He uses slow, sensual zooms; and the long, unflinching takes remind me of another very adult examination of sex and relationships, Steve McQueen’s Shame. I’m pretty sure there’s not a single external shot until the end – and the effect is quite deliberately suffocating. It’s not a stylised film, but there are style choices which fit the airtight situation. When a character speaks on the phone, the person on the other end sounds like they’re pressed to our ear.

What a great ensemble; a reminder that Soderbergh is truly an actors’ director. It’s a reminder also that MacDowell’s reputation as the ruin of good films (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day) is based on wrong casting, not a lack of talent. And Spader’s writhing, discomfited performance is a masterclass of subtle tics and wordless anxiety.

Seen through a modern lens, we instantly recognise the usual Soderbergh concerns – namely, the intimate anguishes of the very well-off. These bored people never seem to work, and have nothing better to do than indulge pet projects and visit each other’s houses unannounced. Graham’s funds are infinite, he points out, affecting impoverishment as he stalks his austere apartment. It makes it hard to relate, at times, let alone sympathise. But the empathy is there, in this perennial dance of love and lust between hetero men and women.

Aside from the pristine 4K transfer, extras include audio commentary from Soderbergh and Neil LaBute; a fan Q&A with Soderbergh; interviews with Soderbergh from 1990 and 1992; a new documentary featuring Peter Gallagher, Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo; a conversation between audio maestros Cliff Martinez and Larry Blake; an essay by film critic Amy Taubin; a deleted scene presented by Soderbergh; plus trailers.

Sex, Lies and Videotape is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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