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The Question of Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)

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Stories that afloat around Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) have culminated into some kind of ‘film lore’. It took the then low-key Sundance Film Festival by storm, and altered its fate forever. It then premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the coveted Palme d’Or (along with Best Actor and International Critics’ Award)- and changed the face of independent cinema forever. Its glory spread across the audience as well- as it earned approximately $100 million worldwide on its initial theatrical release. It had cost a mere $1.2 million to make. And its debutant director was just 29-years-old.

What was so great about a film with such a consummate title is the question that echoed widely when it released. That enthusiasm has certainly subsided, but the same cannot be said about Soderbergh’s film still evades any specific analyses. It has aged magnificently, and remains as urgent as ever in the age where the lines between privacy and confidentiality are not the same. It revolves around four characters, and the presence of sex in their lives. Ann (Andie MacDowell) and her husband John (Peter Gallagher) have no sex, but Ann doesn’t know that John is secretly having an affair with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Enter Graham, John’s school friend, played by John Spader with unparalleled magnetism, with his wild, uncompromising presence, upturning the dynamic between these characters beyond their own perception. 

Related Read to Sex, Lies and Videotape: Cinema And The Art Of Life

But are we to do with these characters? Do we recognise them? Do we try to identify our notions of sex through their different approaches to physical or emotional attachment? Soderbergh does not make any comments here. At best, be presents these characters as versions of themselves, fully aware of their own preferences and choices. As adults, they choose to do things themselves, even though it might not always seem right, or sane according to the society they live in. When it is revealed that Graham videotapes women talking about their various sexual adventures, Ann is bewildered at first, and is creeped out by him. But later, she willingly accepts this idea, and asks Graham to film her talking as well. 

Sex Lies And Videotape
James Spader & Andie Macdowell in “Sex, Lies And Videotape” (1989)

Perhaps it was the idea of talking about sex, about a subject she herself was distant about, that makes her want to exactly know why. Or for that matter how Cynthia, who herself is very sexually active, responds to the idea of videotapes, and accepts it instantly. Self-aware and confident, she is far away from acknowledging that with sex comes power, not just pleasure. After Graham’s videotape, she finds within herself an untapped potential for self-esteem, that she leverages from Graham. Consider the irony of this situation: Johnny and Ann’s relationship is based on lies, whereas Graham’s idea of videotapes is singularly based on truth- the camera, a tremendously opaque metaphor for the cinematic medium itself, cannot lie.

Watching Sex, Lies and Videotape for the first time was an experience in turbulence. I was too invested in these complex characters and their unhealthy obsessions to keep track of anything around them. With another viewing, it felt better- that bit about the unhealthy obsession gave way for more questions. Particularly interesting is the way the film begins and ends- both coincides with characters driving home to another- at first it is Graham, then at the end it is Ann. 

Also Read: How Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets Explores The Themes Of Penance And Salvation

But what mostly stayed is the way in which “Sex, Lies and Videotape” asks some fundamental questions- Do we really know what it takes to love ourself? Do we acknowledge the importance of someone else in making sense of our own self? The conversations are the most intimate aspects in the film, revealing more about the characters than actions. There is no ease in that realization either, as these characters realize that their realities are at loggerheads with their own idea of it. As we register that idea about these characters, are we in turn acknowledging ours? If so, do we see these characters as characters anymore, or our own perceptions projected on-screen? 

“Sex, Lies, and Videotape” is not one of those films that navigate these questions with a teaming sense of dramatic heft. Rather, it juxtaposes these subtleties with a frictional resistance in terms of the way these characters continue to unravel under circumstances. Lies come afloat and the tables are turned, so there is certainly that relief of a proper denouement in terms of agreement. Still, looking for any steady sense of conclusion is the last concern that must bother you while watching the film. Or perhaps it is the best time to do so, as Soderbergh recently announced that he has written the sequel to Sex, Lies and Videotape” during quarantine. It is Soderbergh, so you never know.

Links to Sex, Lies And Videotape : IMDb, Wikipedia

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