Cons: Probably too much honesty for some.
"Everybody lies about sex."
sex, lies, and videotape (1989, dir: Steven Soderbergh) is a dark little gem of a movie about what it means to be dishonest with others, yourself, and the forces of life. It is also a movie which discloses some of the things that happen when such dishonesty is exposed to other people in the world around you. It is well worth watching several times, and discussing with mature and discerning adult friends. It's not for children or those who don't like the idea of confronting the darker sides of heterosexual human sensuality with other people in the same room. In other words, it is very intimate, even without nudity, and very morally confrontational, even without the overt milestones of an obvious ethical nature.
The story is set in present day (1989) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. John (Peter Gallagher) and Ann Dellaney (Andie MacDowell) are, to the public view, an American Dream couple living in a city in the South: she is the all-smiles and somewhat prudish housewife, while he is the handsome and rising young lawyer in the firm. But underneath the facade there is a different story. In John's private life he is having sex with Ann's sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo, in a hot and steamy performance), while in Ann's private life she is pouring out a repressed and neurotic vision of life (ex: fixating on the world's garbage problem as her consuming responsibility above all others; her trivialization of sexuality, etc.) while seemingly oblivious to John's extramarital (and incestuous?) breaking of their wedding vows.
Enter into the lives of this trio John's old roommate Graham (James Spader, in a soft-spoken, stunning performance), a somewhat shell-shocked-looking wanderer who seems to be playing out his life one dogged footstep at a time in search of something he doesn't quite understand. Graham has one unique activity in his life which is unconventional by most standards of middle-American life: he likes to videotape women as they share true confessions about their sex lives. He finds this therapeutic, and, (while some as-yet-to-be disclosed something in his fairly recent personal history has apparently made him impotent) he also gets off on it. I know, you are wondering: "What woman in her right mind would do that?" This is a sort of adult version of "You show me yours and I'll show you mine," except that Graham never shows his; he just videotapes "her" showing "hers," most of the time anyway.
If this were Real Life many people might find Graham's behavior very smarmy, a sort of brain-seduction, with the same selfish testosterone-laced motivation as John's overt body-seductions. Yet it somehow works in the movie as Spader portrays Graham. Part of the genius in Spader's performance (as Graham) is that Graham is apparently guile-less enough and yet attractive enough to convince a number of women to share this kind of intimacy with him. And at the same time he (Spader) has the power to convince us, the audience, that the whole activity is something Graham and the women can actually do. Few American male actors besides James Spader would have the power to actually convince us of such things. His is a role that spans several levels through the film. Spader got the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his brilliant tightwire but edgy performance. Maybe we ought to give Soderbergh some of the credit for that as a tribute to his directing, but Spader with his full-moon-eyes is really in top form.
With the catalyst of Graham moving into the lives of the two women and John, an explosion of self-understanding occurs which eventually discloses what is happening behind the lies of all the characters. As you may imagine, John comes off as the really slimy cretin in the eyes of the others. We even are permitted a slice of poetic justice as his professional career takes a beating and he is made to squirm like a worm in a frying pan. Ann breaks through some of her sexual hang-ups and barriers; her sister breaks through some moral and relational hangups and barriers. And Graham undergoes what may be the most radical transformation of all: he seems to finally get it- that what he is doing with his videotaping is a violation of something deep in the human psyche which is sacred, even to an apparently amoral person- on some level. He feels shame for the first time in a long time. I was reminded at the end of that haunting warning from Judeo-Christian morality found in The Book of Numbers 32:23b, "Be sure your sin will find you out." Just as in Real Life, everybody may lie about sex, but if we sin, sexually, eventually other people always find out. In the movie everybody gets found out, and the results are a catharsis of bittersweet lessons for everyone.
I have read reviews by some feminists who say this movie is permeated with an atmosphere of the hatred of women. I disagree. While the two women characters are shown to have flaws (Ann is ditsy and her sister is a hot-pants sibling rival), the two men are shown with equal flaws (John is presented as a manipulative pig of a person, while Graham is on one level at least, a solo pornographer who is, as some might say, a few bricks shy of a load). But suffice it to say, not everyone is going to like this movie. Some conservative religious people may find it offensive, because of its intimacy and honesty.Oddly, some very liberal and non-religious people may find it offensive, because its final gravitational solution is that there is a standard for what is truth and what is a lie, and we humans finally are not comfortable with situational ethics. Personally, I find this movie fascinating.
You can have a lot of fodder for discussion with this movie. For example, we all (well, many of us anyway) are surprised and inclined to cringe at John's infidelity with Ann's sister in the beginning of the movie. But after the third or fourth viewing of the movie, one may begin to wonder: could Ann's sexless and neurotic behavior have driven John to seek sexual partnership and comfort with her sister? Play that one back on your rationalization machine. Or did John's secret (Yeah, right) promiscuous lifestyle drive Ann into her neurotic state at an earlier time after the honeymoon was over? Who was "Elizabeth" and why did she apparently have such an impotentizing effect on Graham? Did Graham's lover's-loss of "Elizabeth" mess with his head and make him neurotic the same way that Ann's loss of John's affections early in their marriage has apparently made her neurotic, and is that why, perhaps, on a subconscious level, Graham and Ann now sense each other's hurt and therefore they can relate so well on a conscious level? Gee, the mind boggles. Maybe this movie needs its own web site. There are so many angles and loops where you can have an interesting discussion about this movie with the right people in the right mood. But make no mistake: the converse is also true.
This movie, in a vague way, reminded me of Chekhov's play The Seagull. That, too, is about people who, before videotape, were into sex and lies. Yet some of the lessons are the same. Honesty with the self is where good life begins.
NOTE: In August, 2002, theaters are scheduled to release Soderbergh's newest film "Full Frontal", a comedy starring Julia Roberts and a whole gaggle of Hollywood stars. It is billed as a sequel to "sex, lies and videotape". So if you liked s,l,&v you may enjoy the sequel. I'm looking forward to seeing what Soderbergh has served up.