Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh


Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a pretty small movie in terms of scope.  The film follows four characters and hardly has anytime for anyone else except for a bar patron and a couple office coworkers who make an occasional appearance.  The world of the story is heavily concentrated in the lives of John and Ann, an unhappily married couple, as well as John’s college friend Graham and Ann’s sister, Cynthia, with whom John is having an affair.  The story is fairly simple and somewhat predictable.  Graham (James Spader) feels like a free spirit (to put it simply) who is impotent, honest and very reserved.  John (Peter Gallagher) is hyper-sexual, as is his wife’s sister (Laura San Giacomo).  Ann (Andie McDowell) is the exact opposite; she and John haven’t slept together in a long time, and she goes to therapy where she discusses things that both scare her and are out of her control.

With all this in place, it seems safe to assume that Ann will uncover the affair, and her marriage with John will dissolve.  That all happens, and it is certainly aided by Graham, whom Ann discovers has a series of tapes with women he has interviewed about sex.  This makes her very uncomfortable, but Graham’s openness with his project, as well as his own impotence, is disarming.  Still, Ann backs away from Graham despite what at first appeared like a budding friendship.  When she tells Cynthia about Graham, Cynthia is drawn to his mystery.  She comes over and Graham easily talks her into making a tape in which she admits to the affair with John.

Later, Ann learns about the affair on her own, when she finds Cynthia’s earring under the bed she shares with John.  Ann bolts over to Graham’s place to tell him about what she learned, and then she makes a tape with him in which they seem well on their way to sleeping together, which is surprising given Graham’s supposed impotence as well as his 9 year plan to stay out of the messes formed by interpersonal relationships.

The film ends with Graham and Ann together, happy.

The story is so simple, but it never feels stretched out.  This is because the film thrives in silence, with surprising amounts of tension, ratcheted up by the eerie music, the voyeuristic nature of the film and the icy intimacy drawn between each character.  The film was never quite as dark as I imagined it to be before watching the film.  Graham, the ‘weird’ character who records women discussing sex, is actually a pretty grounded individual, though his behavior is a bit wayward.  He once had a relationship with a woman named Elizabeth, 9 years earlier, also when he last saw John.  This seems to be the first time that Graham has returned home, and he claims to be a changed man.  Given the fact that he is the polar opposite of John, this seems to be true.  Whereas as John is hyper-sexual, brash and a hotshot lawyer, Graham is soft-spoken, homeless and more likely to talk through something than to hide behind sex.  Graham says he was a pathological liar, and now he’s often brutally honest.

When Ann lets him record her, she turns the camera on him, asking him probing questions that get to the heart of his odd behavior.  Graham has shied away from all kinds of intimacy, and he seems to think that makes him better than everyone else.  He tells her that sure, he does have his own problems, but he’s able to keep them to himself.  Ann points out that Graham’s arrival has touched her own life, so he can no longer say that his life and his problems are compartmentalized from the rest of the world.  Try as he might, he can’t detach from people.

So Ann breaks down that distance between him and the people around him, and he’s better off for it.

When we last see John, his marriage has disintegrated, and his business life seems about to unravel.  He has no closure and no intimacy with himself.  Ann talks through her own phobias and issues with the therapist and with Graham, and she forces Graham to do the same.  They break through the walls they’ve constructed around themselves, and John only builds his up further.  He’s already been established as a liar, both by his wife and by Cynthia and by Graham’s statement that he himself was a pathological liar (and by all accounts very much like John is now).  The final scene with John in his corner office (isolated) shows him losing a client and telling another client that Ann couldn’t handle his business life.  Business means more to him, he says (though he constantly reschedules meetings that conflict with his afternoon delights with Cynthia), very much in denial.

So what role does sex play in all of this?  It’s, in a sense, weaponized by various characters.  It’s like a gun, I suppose.  Graham doesn’t shoot guns anymore because he’s scared of hurting himself or someone else.  He rather play with nerf guns by himself at night.  Ann is afraid of guns, but only really because her sister loves guns, and she defines herself in opposition to her sister.  John loves guns as well, and there doesn’t seem to be any greater point to this other than he likes guns and wants to shoot them as often as possible.  At the end of the day he’s left with no one to pull his trigger.

I’m still surprised with how this film sustains its run time.  There is one exceptionally long scene near the end of the film, the climax of the film.  This is when John confronts Graham, wanting to see the tape his wife made.  He sees the tape as an infringement into his own personal life.  It’s an attack, and he decides to watch the whole thing because he needs the evidence.  He’s a lawyer, and he has to know that something happened, logically.  He can’t suspect it or believe it, he has to see it.  We start by seeing Ann through the tape recording, with the music heightened so it’s both soft and sharp, a continuous note like something out of a horror film.

Then we cut to the same space as Graham and Ann when the tape was recorded.  The conversation is so delicate and yet it cuts to the heart of what scares each character.  It’s honest, somewhat profound, soft-spoken, and yet this is what’s such a threat to John.  He can’t see the vulnerability at the center of this dialogue.  It’s a more honest conversation than one he’s most likely ever had with his wife or with anyone else.

So when the tape ends, John doesn’t try to beat up Graham once more.  Instead he tells him that he slept with Graham’s ex-girlfriend while they were still together.  John still uses sex as a weapon, something used to show power.  He feels powerless, so he resorts to this memory (whether true or not) as a way to get power back over his old friend.

Then the film ends surprisingly quickly.  Ann and Cynthia make peace very quickly and quietly, without saying much, and she returns to Graham while John is stuck alone in his stuffy corner office.

After watching this film, the feeling I was left with was something like a sci-fi film that takes you through multiple worlds and galaxies.  Except instead of going outward, the film takes us inward.  These are four characters who on the surface are no different than any other character we’ve seen a hundred times before.  But often the deepest hole into someone’s psyche is through sex and intimacy.  No one really seems to know why they desire or fear the things they desire of fear.  Sure on some level you know why, maybe you can trace it to a specific event.  But something like physical attraction is based on a series of things, both nature and nurture, tribal and personal.  So when we delve into the psyches of these characters, it feels like we’re bring dropped so far down that everything is dark, like the deepest levels of the ocean or the unexplored areas of space.  The music adds to this, as it seems to become a little more strained as time goes on, like the rope we’re clinging onto could snap at any moment and we might be stuck in nothingness, like the loss of ego and anything to cling onto.  In other words, when John watched that tape between Graham and his wife, it felt like he would break at any moment, like his mind would choose not to comprehend the infidelity he just saw, and the line would be cut.  I suppose that might just make the memory of the tape a repressed memory.

So that’s the feeling I had.  It was almost like if we went any further into Graham’s head, he would never make it back out alive.  But he did, and so did Ann, and they’re able to start fresh with a relationship based on honesty and an ability to talk about anything, meaning nothing will get in the way.  Well, whether or not it works, it has a better chance than her relationship with John ever did.

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