Wednesday, September 7, 2011

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

sex, lies, and videotape
Dir. Steven Soderbergh

4 out of 5

Those with prurient interests will be disappointed in
sex, lies, and videotape, Steven Soderbergh's smart, skinless meditation on eroticism and infidelity. In a performance that simultaneously defines and subverts her type, Andie MacDowell plays a repressed Baton Rouge housewife who's unaware of the affair occurring between her philandering husband (Peter Gallagher) and her bartender/artist sister (Laura San Giacomo). MacDowell has a sexual awakening in the form of the moody, nomadic James Spader, who we meet while he's grooming himself in a gas station bathroom. A old college buddy of Gallagher's, he moves into a fleabag apartment and continues the pursuit of his fetish (and apparently the only demand on his time) - videotaping women talking candidly about their sex lives.

I will take a moment here to point out that many consider
videotape to be an "erotic comedy." The big joke, of course, is that MacDowell spends hours with a professional therapist with no discernible improvement to her frigidity, but within minutes is chatting up a mumbling loner with probing questions about his sexual history. The filmmaker's cliche about therapy that numbs rather than heals didn't start here, but it has a nasty effectiveness when Soderbergh uses the audio of MacDowell on the doctor's couch to soundtrack scenes of her sister and husband in her marital bed. The funniest character, however, is Gallagher, a sort of proto-Patrick Bateman who complains about the many (unseen) clients he must reschedule to make time for his trysts. Sexually dominated by San Giacomo and intellectually cowed by Spader, his insistent machismo does a poor job of masking his status as the film's most impotent agent.

Gallagher's simmering rage explodes just in time for the film's bravura sequence - a real-time account of MacDowell's decision to be interviewed and taped by Spader. The scene underscores the film's sympathy for well-meaning misfits. Surveying the damage of MacDowell's marriage (the jig is most definitely up for Gallagher by this point), Spader proposes that his acceptance of his own sexual foibles makes him the healthiest of the entire lot. He's got a point. People like Gallagher are not-so-secretly threatened by the self-assurance that often accompanies obsession; even the sweet MacDowell is initially repulsed by Spader's pathetic straits. Soderbergh - save for an ending that feels tacked-on - is equally assured in rejecting the shameful associations of Spader's fetishism. Showing an early aptitude for slick, thought-provoking juxtaposition of imagery, the director creates an arresting first statement with
videotape while slyly letting on that his freak flag is only beginning to unfurl.

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