Sex, Lies, and Videotape Review

John Millaney (Peter Gallagher) is a lawyer married to Ann (Andie MacDowell). Their sex life has deteriorated to the point of non-existence, and Ann is in therapy. Meanwhile, John is secretly carrying on an affair with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Into their lives arrives John’s old college friend Graham (James Spader), who has problems of his own. The lives of all four will never be the same…

“It’s all downhill from here,” joked Steven Soderbergh as he received the Cannes Palme d’Or for his first fictional feature film drama. (He had previously made a Yes concert video, 9012 Live.) For a while in the mid-nineties it looked like this prediction had become true, and that Soderbergh was a spent force. But, as we now know, he recovered and hit a purple patch that has so far lasted four films: Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich and most recently Traffic, for which he won the Best Director Oscar. The latter two were also box office hits, proving that it is still possible to make intelligent films within the studio system that people will see.

Looking back at Sex, Lies, and Videotape (and in my case, watching it again for the first time since its British cinema release) it’s striking how little it resembles Soderbergh’s later work. For the most part, Sex, Lies is stylistically self-effacing, partly due to the tiny budget, partly – as Soderbergh says in the commentary – because he “didn’t want to get in the way”. Of his later work, only Erin Brockovich and King of the Hill are as “transparent” in style. Although there are flashbacks in Sex, Lies, Soderbergh’s interest in non-chronological plot construction developed later. An under-regarded film like Underneath shows more of its director’s trademarks. Sex, Lies, and Videotape, an iconic title in itself, tapped into themes of voyeurism, of experience mediated via technology (Graham is impotent and can only gain satisfaction by recording videotapes of women talking about their sexual experiences) that have become even more prominent in the 90s with the rise of the Internet. These are themes that Soderbergh has, on the whole, not pursued: other directors, like Atom Egoyan, have taken them further. What is evident this early on is Soderbergh’s considerable skill with actors. Spader won the Best Actor award at Cannes, but all four leads have never been better.

Columbia TriStar’s DVD is dual-sided, an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer on one side, a full-frame (pan-and-scan) transfer on the other. I can’t really endorse the latter unless you have a real aversion to black bars even at this ratio. The picture is a faithful record of a visually unflashy film, with only minor artefacting. Sex, Lies, and Videotape was released with a Dolby soundtrack. On this DVD, you have a choice of Dolby Surround or remixed Dolby 5.1. Either way, it makes little difference: this is very much a dialogue-driven film. The 5.1 track does enhance the occasional directional sound effect and Cliff Martinez’s spare soundtrack, so it’s the one to go for if you have the equipment for it.

The trailer (which runs 1:15) tries to promote the film on the basis of the first word in its title, while maintaining respectability by quoting wholesale from leading critics. Otherwise, the only extra is a commentary, in which Soderbergh is interviewed by In the Company of Men director Neil LaBute. Soderbergh has produced some excellent commentaries in tandem with someone else, and this is another one. He’s modest about this film, pointing out scenes that could have been better written and certain directorial flourishes (like a reverse-zoom on Laura San Giacomo) which he would now avoid. Note that this commentary was recorded in 1998: Out of Sight is referred to as a forthcoming film. Given the film’s place in history as a major American independent, a retrospective documentary would have been good, but perhaps some future special edition will provide that. There are twenty-eight chapter stops, ample for a not especially long film.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a key independent movies of the last decade and a half, a rich period for work made outside the Hollywood system. Historical importance aside, it survives as an excellent film, though maybe too talky for some. It’s intelligent and adult in the best sense, and is highly recommended. Columbia's disc is certainly worthwhile.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 19:06:24

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