sex, lies & videotape (1989)



17 September 2019| Comments Off on sex, lies & videotape (1989)     by Sean Chavel


The camera runs over concrete scored to frenzied guitar plucks, assuming its attached to a car moving somewhere fast and urgent. Then that man who steps out uses extra time at a gas station bathroom break, shaving with foam mousse, wiping his pits with his own button-up shirt. I see him as a man who thinks he’s living a life of bohemian adventure, of someone who thinks this is life-on-the-move practicality. He thinks this way, but I am sad for him.

Few films have been as psychologically keen on life spoiled by bad habits and idleness as Steven Soderbergh’s wunderkind debut sex, lies & videotape. The man from the bathroom is Graham (James Spader), whose compulsion is finding many women willing to give videotape confessions of their entire sex lives; this isn’t Kinsey research, this is for personal use. Graham later lets a confidante know he is impotent and has been that way a long time; yet the catch is he’s impotent in the company of another person. I see now, after catching up with this film again many years later, is that when he’s alone watching his videotapes, he’s fine. His anatomy is working.

Graham has gone on with his compulsion for so long that his everyday manners are graceless and invasive. For instance, consider his uncouth way about himself when he first enters someone home and treads through the house longing to use the bathroom, his near light-up of a cigarette, and the minutes later, the grilling of how is marriage for you questions.

Graham has gone across states to stay with his old college friend John (Peter Gallagher), and will sleep at this house until he finds his own apartment. Graham has returned to Louisiana indefinitely until he tracks down the last girl he ever loved, almost a decade ago. We never meet this ex-girlfriend Elizabeth of whom he speaks about.

John is a braggart lawyer married to Ann (Andie MacDowell). Ann is weighed down by corked emotions, neuroses. She is disinterested in sex, she says, “I think sex is overrated. I think that people place far too much importance on it.” She is over-concerned about surplus of garbage, which is germane to the sex in the film’s title – if she is put off by stink and spills imagine her anxiety of any necessary clean-up after sex, yes? she is put off by stink and spills imagine her anxiety of any necessary clean-up after sex, yes?

She is embarrassed by masturbation, and other sexual subjects. Yet she opens up entirely with Graham while he is staying at their house. They have the pretense of talking about sophisticated “other” things, but really, they get personal about the subject of sex. Eventually, Graham is too blasé about his predilections and Ann is appalled by his disclosure. As well as intrigued, but there’s no way she can be honest to herself about her interest in him.

John is having sex with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) as revealed within the opening minutes of the film. Cynthia is turned on by John’s ego perhaps, but I believe what propels her to sleep with her sister’s husband is the tug of war they share with one another. Ann is a prude and Cynthia is a hedonist, and there’s a sibling rivalry to shame each other about their ways.

It is very possible, after I’ve seen sex, lies & videotape multiple times over the years, that Ann is turned off by sex just because she has a sister who is so turned on by it. By removing herself from having a sex life she can have a judgmental analysis on her sister at being unfocused and irresponsible.

For all the grown-up stance Ann has on her life, though, she lives in a big house that is empty. With no children. A husband who is cheating. A husband who lies at his job. A husband who is stocked with alibis on his actions and whereabouts in regards to everything.

Yes, sex, lies & videotape is all about the obvious – sex, lies and videotape. I feel it is one of the greatest screenplays ever written, because it is so concentrated on its subject, on its people, and forthright and unaffected about it at the same time. Soderbergh’s directing is peerless, too, showing so much perception just by how he sets up his camera and peruses the body temperature in the room, or how if one person is speaking personally he shows the camera on the opposite person in a way that he makes us think deep about what is going on in the interior thoughts of that person.

Ann eventually gravitates towards Graham to participate in, what is to her, the forbidden. And that is only because she becomes a person in desperate craving for change. She senses her husband’s infidelity and the sham persona he puts on, and wants at least confession and discovery from another human being. Graham with his feminine pony locks never gets a haircut, not even for the final shot in the film, but I think he has been waiting for years for one woman to challenge his inner spirit and purge. In one of the great shots of 80’s cinema, something that unfurls at you with great spontaneity and transformation in character, Graham goes into destruction mode over the object that has for too long taken control over his life.

The conclusion is less sad than how it had begun. I believe Graham will be able to not be so invasive with others and will learn how to communicate more with ease as long he gives up his obsession. I believe Ann will be better off not with the perfection of abundance but with quaintness. In a quiet way, all four of them: Spader and McDowell, principally, as well as Gallagher and San Giacomo, act out their roles with raw emotion and searing revelation.

100 Minutes. Rated R.


Film Cousins: “Paris, Texas” (1984); “White Palace” (1990); “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008); “The Girlfriend Experience” (2009).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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