Steven Soderbergh's writing/directing debut maintains its voyeuristic power 30 years later. Info
Along with Hal Hartley and Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh significantly shaped the American independent film landscape in the late 1980s and early '90s with his writing/directing feature debut, Sex, Lies, And Videotape (1989). It owes its instant international success not just to the intrigue of its cast of familiar faces and up-and-comers alike (Andie MacDowell, Laura San Giacomo, Peter Gallagher, and James Spader) but also to its unabashed and provocative plumbing of the depths of its troubled suburbanites. Thirty years on (the anniversary being the occasion for this Cinesthesia screening), it's evident how strong a role the psychologically complex characterizations have played in Soderbergh's own prolific output and filmography (see: 2009's The Girlfriend Experience), and in forecasting the power dynamics and dialogue in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
In simple strokes, Soderbergh manages to transform a chamber drama largely confined to the house of Ann and John Mullany (MacDowell and Gallagher) into something grandly inquisitive and probing. Preexisting intimacy issues in their marriage and John's wrongheaded affair with Ann's permissive sister Cynthia (Giacomo) subtly and dramatically escalate with the arrival of John's old college friend, the enigmatic and bohemian Graham (Spader), who harbors a most unusual kink and interest in privately filming women talk about their sexual preferences and histories. With cinematographer Walt Lloyd, Soderbergh instills each scene with a sense of voyeuristic unease, teasing out sensitive details in arresting conversation.
Those exchanges perpetually seem like they're on the precipice of interrogation, as if every character is acutely aware of the other's underlying secrets, but desires to hear them spoken aloud for ultimate validation. In this aspect, Sex, Lies, And Videotape's concluding act is a masterclass in suspenseful screenwriting fundamentals. But perhaps most overlooked is Soderbergh's touch as an editor, further intertwining the fragile states of existence. This approach is most notably evidenced in an early scene between Graham and Ann bonding at a café, which is perfectly juxtaposed with a risky sexual encounter between John and Cynthia in his own home. —Grant Phipps