FILMS

Verbal striptease

A young film-maker seduces with words and wit

Brian D. Johnson September 25 1989
FILMS

Verbal striptease

A young film-maker seduces with words and wit

Brian D. Johnson September 25 1989

Verbal striptease

FILMS

A young film-maker seduces with words and wit

sex, lies and videotape Directed by Steven Soderbergh

The camera is a consummate voyeur. It fosters illusions of invaded privacy. It spies on human intimacy for darkened rooms of anonymous viewers. sex, lies and videotape is a movie about sexual honesty, emotional deceit—and video voyeurism. As provocative and direct as its title, it is also the most talked-about feature debut by an American director in years. Produced for the relatively low budget of $1.4 million, the movie was written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, a 26year-old film-maker from Baton Rouge, La. Last May, it won the grand prize at the Cannes International Film Festival.

And since opening in the United States last month, it has grossed $13 million at the box office. Soderbergh has crafted that rare commodity, an art movie to delight a mass audience. It is sexy.

But the words are at least as seductive as the images. Brimming with wit, sex, lies and videotape offers a reminder that pleasure begins in the brain.

Soderbergh’s script is a marvel of stripped-down symmetry. It revolves around four characters, two women and two men.

The women are sisters, one naughty and one nice.

The nice one, Ann (Andie Macdowell), is a repressed housewife. She worries about what is going to happen to the world’s garbage. She worries about airline fatalities. And sex, she claims, “is overrated—I think that business about women wanting it just as much as men is crap.” Yet Ann is disturbed that her husband, a sleazy lawyer named John (Peter Gallagher), has stopped touching her—she is unaware that he is having an affair with her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

Trouble erupts with the arrival of Graham Games Spader), an old friend of John’s who has

a highly unusual hobby. Graham makes videotapes of women talking about their sex lives. There is an openness about Graham that attracts women—including Cynthia and Ann— persuading them to reveal things that they have never admitted, even to themselves. Sometimes his subjects do more than talk— they masturbate. But Graham never does more than record their revelations. He claims that he

is unable to get an erection in the presence of another person. Instead, he gratifies himself in private by watching selections from his library of videotapes. He assures his subjects that no one, aside from himself, will ever see the tapes.

Turning on the intrigue of adultery, the script is full of mischievous twists. Questioning one another’s most intimate motives, the characters keep uttering the unexpected. Soderbergh’s drama is more of a verbal than a visual striptease. There is little nudity, and the fleeting scenes of lovemaking are not half as exciting as the intense conversations, which feature

ravishing close-ups of women talking about sex in the slow and easy accents of the American South. At the same time, the dialogue explores the politics of sexuality with rare honesty and intelligence. Recalling her first sexual experience, Cynthia tells Graham: “The organ itself seemed like a separate entity. When he finally pulled it out, and I looked at it, I completely forgot there was a guy attached to it.”

Although the director is male, the women in the movie are more sympathetic—and interesting—than the men. As Ann, Macdowell creates a subtle portrait of a woman too easily embarrassed by herself. And as Cynthia, a woman who takes pleasure in embarrassing others, San Giacomo singes the screen with sexual insolence. Meanwhile, the male characters offer a deft reversal of moral stereotypes. Despite the perverse nature of Graham’s sexual habits, he generates sympathy by being so thoroughly disarming in his honesty. Keeping the viewer continually off-balance, Spader is brilliant in the role. As the adulterous cad, Gallagher provides the one slightly forced note in the drama.

What is most encouraging about sex, lies and videotape is that it seems so effortless. The lucid economy of Soderbergh’s first feature offers relief from the formula excesses of Hollywood. At times, the director’s minimalist style seems glib, its script too clever. But sex, lies and videotape stands as a shining example to independent film-makers. It demonstrates that it is possible to succeed with the barest of essential ingredients: a sharp director, a handful of skilled actors and a canny script about a subject that is endlessly intriguing.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON