Criticwire Classic of the Week: Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Sex, lies, and videotape’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Steven Soderbergh's 'Sex, lies, and videotape'
Criticwire Classic of the Week: Steven Soderbergh's 'Sex, lies, and videotape'

now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for
attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

Sex, lies, and videotape” (1989)
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Criticwire Average: A

In 1989, Steven Soderbergh burst onto the scene with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” first taking Sundance by storm, then unexpectedly winning the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and finally debuting in theaters on August 18, eventually grossing $25 million in the U.S. alone. It made a name for the young director and the upstart studio Miramax, and it also kicked off both the American independent cinema boom of the 90s and star James Spader’s long and storied career of playing perverts (continued in Cronenberg’s “Crash,” “The Practice” and “Boston Legal,” “The Office,” “Secretary” and presumably “Avengers: Age of Ultron”). But even without that level of cultural importance, it’s still an impressive directorial debut.

Andie MacDowell stars as Ann, the unhappy wife of a lawyer (Peter Gallagher) who, unbeknownst to her, is sleeping with her sexually uninhibited sister (Laura San Giacomo). When her husband’s college friend Graham (Spader) comes into town, Ann is first fascinated by the sensitive man, then repulsed when she learns of his fetish of taping women talking about sex.

Much has been made of Soderbergh’s preternatural skill of working with actors, whether it’s getting a strong, sympathetic performance out of the usually remote MacDowell or getting Spader (then known for playing smug yuppies) to give a simultaneously empathetic and slightly creepy turn. But the film is even more remarkable for its frankness and intelligence about both sex and lies, and how attraction and deception (and self-deception) often intertwine.

And Soderbergh also proved himself a natural behind a camera, with every frame (tight close ups of Spader and MacDowell touching, or of MacDowell’s embarrassment when a therapist asks about masturbation) enhancing the inquisitive, ethereal mood he’s going for.  Soderbergh would spend the next several years making (often still terrific) critical and financial disappointments before his resurgence in the late 90s, but with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” he made his all too indelible mark the first time out. 

More from the Criticwire Network:

Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film

Captures Western society at a critical moment in time when it was beginning to glimpse, for the first time, what it would become.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Even the character of John (Peter Gallagher), so emblematic of the yuppie asshole that in 1989 everyone had had enough of, while he’d no doubt be a douchbag Wall Streeter in the 2014 version, is emblematic of a status-driven lifestyle that, current economics being what they are, many middle class people are finding they simply can’t afford. By contrast Graham’s “one key” philosophy and his unencumbered existence, lacking in material comfort but also free of debt or overburdened financial responsibility seems immediately appealing. And even aside from its ongoing thematic resonance, it’s simply a very witty, surprisingly insightful relationship drama that gives all four of its actors a chance to showcase career-best work as their characters negotiate the tangled webs they’ve woven. Read more.

Joe Leydon, Moving Picture Show

Produced on a frayed shoestring of $1.2 million in Baton Rouge, La., “sex, lies, and videotape” is an emotionally precise and perceptively written chamber drama, tightly focused on four twentysomething adults and their psychosexual secrets. Making his debut as a feature filmmaker, Soderbergh directs his own screenplay with astonishing self-assurance and gracefully fluid camerawork, giving an urgent sense of dramatic momentum to the evasions and revelations of intimate conversation. Read more.

More from the web:

Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

People were lured in by the titillating promises of the title, but that wasn’t what they went home talking about. This was a movie about sex without being About Sex, about relationships without surrendering to self-help jargon, about intimacy and imagination and desire and all of the things that are so much sexier than naked people awkwardly humping. And it was about how people use those weapons to harm each other, and themselves. Graham’s deep, dark secret wasn’t that he was impotent, or that he made these tapes — it was the he was a liar, and that became something he couldn’t abide. But Soderbergh’s script was smart enough to know that we’re all liars, to some extent; by acknowledging it, Graham, the introverted weirdo, is one of the few people who isn’t lying to himself. Read more.

Caryn James, The New York Times

James Spader, who won the Best Actor Award at Cannes, gives a tremendously subtle performance, playing Graham with a hesitant half-smile and tentative voice that makes him sweet and sinister at once, keeping everyone off-balance. He arrives at Ann’s house and instantly starts questioning her, apologizing even as he pries. ”Do you like being married? What do you like about it?” He is a cool observer so pained by his own detachment that the word voyeur never quite matches his perversity. Read more.

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