sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

An intelligent, preternaturally mature debut from Steven Soderbergh that broke new ground for indie filmmaking



United States of America
Alexandra Root, Andie MacDowell, David Foil
101 min


He has a lot of competition, but Graham might just be James Spader’s ultimate weirdo character.

What it's about

A bored housewife finds catharsis — and maybe something else — in a drifter friend of her husband’s.

The take

Remarkably, Steven Soderbergh was only 26 years old when he directed this coolly assured debut, the searingly candid script of which he also wrote in just eight days. Despite the pornographic implications of its title, this is more concerned with exploring whether honesty — not sex — is the means to real intimacy. In fact, the only nakedness glimpsed here is of the emotional kind, as twenty-something drifter Graham’s (James Spader) total aversion to lying has an infectious influence on everyone around him.

The primary recipient of that disarming effect is Ann (Andie MacDowell), the wife of Graham’s old college buddy who is blasé about sex and neurotic about everything else. Talking to Graham has a therapeutic effect on her, but he takes something else away from conversation: chronically impotent, he simulates the sexual experience by conducting erotically themed interviews with women on videotape. Preferring to sublimate his desires through his camcorder, Spader’s physically aloof character is a disturbingly prescient one for what it suggested then about technology’s future impact on human relationships. That Soderbergh managed to conduct such a complex psychosexual drama all through dialogue — on his first feature, no less — makes him exceedingly worthy of the record this earned him of the youngest solo Palme d’Or-winning director ever.

What stands out

Sex, lies, and videotape boasts an impressive ensemble: alongside Spader and MacDowell, it also features Peter Gallagher as Ann’s husband John and Laura San Giacomo as Ann’s sister, with whom John is cheating with. Of the quartet, though, it’s Spader who runs away with the film. The jury of that year’s Cannes Film Festival agreed: they named him Best Actor for his deftly modulated performance here, which tips the scales from weird to sensitive and back again (even in the same scene) and is key to the film’s overall intelligent, ambiguous effect.


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