Without doubt, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape struck a nerve when it was released in 1989. Astonishingly, it still does today. Among the most storied of American independent films, it debuted at the U.S. Film Festival (soon to be renamed the Sundance Film Festival) and immediately transformed that earnest refuge from Hollywood commercialism into a magnet for Los Angeles power brokers looking for fresh talent. Soderbergh’s first narrative feature went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and earned as much as $100 million worldwide on its initial theatrical release. It had cost a mere $1.2 million to make.
Among the secrets of its success: sex, lies, and videotape is a hotbed of contradictions. The very subjects announced by the title so often lead to conflict: who has not been pulled in opposing directions by sex, to the extent that lying to oneself and others becomes, on occasion, a necessary condition? And when portable video cameras became ubiquitous, they threatened to bring that muddle of desire and guilt into the open, with potential ramifications both positive and negative for all concerned. But let’s begin with the most enveloping contradiction: the fantasies evoked by the tawdry tabloid connotations of the title versus the experience of the film itself, which has the sun-drenched beauty of an eighties House & Garden spread. The setting is Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in summer, and there are plants everywhere, inside and out. Shot on 35 mm film, often making use of the light that floods high-ceilinged rooms through large windows, sex, lies, and videotape is not only pleasing to the eye, it also has an extraordinary tactility.
In the director’s commentary recorded for the 1998 DVD release, Soderbergh recounts how some agents didn’t want to show the script to actors because they thought it was going to be a porn movie. In fact, there is barely any nudity, and the sex scenes are so elliptically edited that they are more exciting for what we don’t see than for what we do. And yet sex, lies, and videotape is something of a skin flick. Soderbergh often frames the two central characters, Ann (Andie MacDowell) and Graham (James Spader), in extremely tight close-ups, held long enough for the skin of their faces to become naked indexes of their inner lives. They blush, they sweat. We know what their cheeks would feel like if we were to touch them with our fingers as we do with our eyes. I’ve never seen—before or since—skin that alive in a movie.
Graham and Ann are the two central figures in a quartet that also includes Ann’s younger sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), and Ann’s husband, John (Peter Gallagher). Ann and Cynthia have defined themselves in the negative, each wanting to be as little like the other as possible. Ann is a proper, married southern girl, who responds to anything that threatens her composure with laughter, as if the idea that she or anyone else could feel lust or anger were absurd. She is in long-term psychotherapy, worries about garbage inundating the world, and is in denial about how terrible her sex life is—and about sex in general. Cynthia is a painter who works as a bartender and enjoys flaunting her sexuality. She is having a secret affair with John because it’s the worst thing she can do: screwing over her sister by screwing her sister’s husband. But John, an ambitious lawyer and compulsive philanderer with no capacity for self-examination, doesn’t deserve either Ann or Cynthia.
Into this tricky arrangement walks Graham, who nine years before was John’s fraternity brother but is now so transformed that John barely recognizes him. Graham has become a long-haired bohemian who wears poetic-rock-star black shirts and lives in his car. In his insistence on being what he sees as scrupulously honest, he makes other people uncomfortable by staring at them and asking impolitely direct, some might say invasive, questions. Graham and Ann are immediately attracted to each other, although Ann refuses to acknowledge her feelings and Graham refuses to act on his. Oblivious to their connection, John encourages Ann to go apartment hunting with Graham because it will give him a chance to fuck Cynthia in his and Ann’s bed.
When Graham and Ann, more circumspectly, have lunch, Graham tells her that he is now impotent. As Ann listens, the movement of her fingers toying with her wineglass becomes the focus of Graham’s gaze and of ours. Later, in what we could term the second act of the narrative, she discovers, during a casual visit to Graham’s new apartment, a box of videotapes, each labeled with a woman’s name. Graham explains that he records women talking about sex and masturbates to the tapes when he’s alone. Ann gets upset and flees, but after she discovers her husband’s affair with her sister and the fact that Cynthia let Graham videotape her, she returns to confront him about messing around with her life while pretending to be completely detached from relationships. This is the climactic scene, but the drama plays out extremely quietly. Soderbergh frames the actors for the most part in medium close-up, slowly cutting from one to the other, giving us time to observe the play of seesawing emotions on each of their faces and how power shifts between them. The camera watches them as they speak and as they fall silent, just as they watch each other. The film’s opening sequence, showing Graham approaching Baton Rouge in his convertible, suggested a road movie, but we understand in this scene that the journey that matters is an interior one, and that neither of these characters could have gotten very far without the other, or without being able to find the humor in their mutual dilemmas. If sex, lies, and videotape is a comedy—and it definitely is, in the classic sense that it resolves in favor of its protagonists—the laughter it elicits is often uncomfortable, and the director and actors never fall into the easy trap of satire or sentimentality. Rather, the film is remarkably nonjudgmental toward its characters’ confusions, and toward the way that, in the guise of being completely truthful, they substitute one denial for another.
The tenderness with which Soderbergh treats Ann and Graham finally conditions the characters’ behavior toward each other. When Graham tries to explain to Ann that his fear of losing control in a relationship that mattered to him made him a pathological liar, and that he felt the only way he could stop lying was to have relationships only with images on a screen, Ann picks up the camera and turns it on him, and then, just as she ran her finger over her wineglass before, she wraps her fingers around Graham’s and places both of their hands on her face, guiding his touch down her cheeks, toward her neck. Graham reaches for the camera and turns it off, whereupon Soderbergh cuts away from the scene. It’s the only image of their lovemaking that we are allowed, but it is enough to fulfill the desire for touch that has built gradually throughout the film. And by refusing to indulge our voyeurism, Soderbergh reminds us of how easy it is to fall into the same trap that Graham did.
Among the myths that have grown up around sex, lies, and videotape is the idea that Soderbergh wrote the script in eight days. What the myth omits is that the eight-day week was preceded by a year of filling notebooks with ideas and observations. The brief account of the plot above does not do justice to the psychological complexity of the characters, the quicksilver dialogue, the play of desire and its repression, and the dramatization of how moving images had already, by 1989, begun to mediate all relationships—intimate, social, political, economic, you name it. We can see in sex, lies, and videotape the beginning of the way in which all our lives would become performances for our own cameras, and how performance, whether in the personal, social, or political sphere, cannot be trusted. Just as the lies that Reagan told on TV in 1986 during the Iran-Contra scandal led to the daily lies of the president who was elected in 2016, our need for personal technology to defend us from both our interiority and the outside world has become all-encompassing.
A young man’s film, sex, lies, and videotape focuses on the moment when doubts about the choices one made in early adulthood color one’s personal relationships and one’s work. Soderbergh has never again made a film as intimate or as filled with yearning and confusion as his debut feature, although Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), and Behind the Candelabra (2013) come close. This is not to say that Che (2008) and the television series The Knick (2014–15)—works that dramatize turning points in history and the role of visionaries in forcing political and scientific change—are not as great as, well, love stories. What makes Soderbergh one of the most important filmmakers in the history of the medium is the breadth of his body of work, and his balancing of precision and risk in almost every film he creates. A hands-on moviemaker from the beginning, Soderbergh wrote, directed, and edited sex, lies, and videotape. Over the past eighteen years, he has also taken charge of the cinematography for his films. But even as he has embraced being his own director of photography, Soderbergh has gradually pulled away from writing. Looking again at sex, lies, and videotape, a film whose script and direction speak to a singular, deeply held vision, I wonder if Soderbergh’s rejection of writing doesn’t have something in common with Graham’s rejection of passionate relationships in favor of creating desire through images that are at one remove. In any case, we still have sex, lies, and videotape, a movie to cherish forever.