“Sex sells” is the slogan advertising executives win with. That’s why girls in bikinis advertise soda and yoked up guys appear on the cover of tampon products. Actually, the latter one probably isn’t true, but it’d be amusing if it were. Steven Soderbergh used the psychological effects of sex as a selling point for his debut feature and rode it to large acclaim. The film is credited with birthing the emergence of independent cinema, winning the Audience Award at Sundance, multiple Independent Spirit Awards, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at the Cannes Film Festival. Quite a debut haul.
Sex, lies and videotape contains copious amounts of all three elements described in its title. Ann (Andie MacDowell) is stuck in a marriage in which sex is no longer a usual activity. She confesses to her psychologist that the act doesn’t interest her anymore, although her husband stopped trying long ago. She laughs and giggles embarrassingly when the topic of self-gratification is mentioned and admits to never trying it alone. Although she is the type of person who frets about the things in life she can’t control, like any good Freud-studied psychologist would do, the subject at hand stays firmly on sex. Only does the topic of conversation shift when Ann claims to being frustrated by her husband inviting an old college buddy to stay at their house, without asking her permission first.
Ann’s husband, John (Peter Gallagher) appears to be the root of all her unresolved psychological problems. He is in the midst of carrying out an affair with Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), unbeknownst to his wife. He’s a lawyer and a liar, which makes rank as number one and number on the list of “lowest forms of life.” He keeps Cynthia at bay, telling her to expect him to pay all of his attention to his friend, Graham (James Spader), once he arrives, but Cynthia has him wrapped around her finger so tight, she only needs to call his office and John will immediately rearrange his schedule, no matter the importance, for her.
Graham’s arrival in town invokes changes within all three characters almost immediately. He has significantly changed since he and John went to college. They are so different, it seems, that Ann quickly takes a shine to him and his mysterious ways, brushing off her previous apprehension about the visit. Graham eventually moves into town and confides in Ann, stating he’s impotent around the opposite sex. His impotency doesn’t stop him from having a fetish, however, and as the triad of Ann, Cynthia and John discover what it is and how it works, it manages to pull them all apart, one-by-one.
There’s somewhat of a genius quote attributed to Cary Grant (it’s on his IMDb page) where he supposed stated: “In order to succeed with the opposite sex, tell her you’re impotent. She can’t want to prove you wrong.” It may not be Graham’s confession of impotency that gets Ann thinking about him in a way she no longer thinks about her husband, but the casual conversation about sex in general certainly piques her interest, as it does the audience. Soderbergh’s script is largely conversational, enabling the viewer to play voyeur in these characters’ lives.
Sex is never explicitly depicted in the film, merely hinted at and spoken about, but it looms over each frame like a dark cloud, threatening rain. Soderbergh doesn’t pepper his film with visual flair, but is more confident letting his characters and their dialogue run the show than the camera he operates. Some familiar Soderberghian elements can be found here however, notably his use of displaced narration, where two characters converse in one scene with the audio accompanying a separate image. This technique is readily familiar in The Limey, and is one of the few things that stand out that make this film uniquely his.
Soderbergh hasn’t written too many of the scripts he’s directed, thus making it somewhat difficult to pinpoint elements from his other written work, but selecting 2002’s Solaris from the bunch, it appears the man has an affinity for psychology. The science plays a large part in the latter film, as well as his first, as there is not only a psychologist character, but the potential benefits of psychoanalysis is debated between Ann and Graham. It’s unclear as to what the director himself feels about the subject, but one can deduce it’s never far from the forefront of his mind.
Soderbergh indeed made a splash with his debut film, worthy of all the accolades he received. Sex, lies and videotape is constantly entertaining, despite its reluctance to display anything too unique and inventive visually. It announced a major filmmaking talent and we can all count ourselves lucky the discovery was made. Soderbergh has stated he foresees an end to his career and no matter when that happens, his first feature will be as important a footnote in his career as any other.
Buy this First Feature here.