It’s hard to imagine a time before Steven Soderbergh had directed a thousand movies. But in 1989, he made his first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape; the Palme d’Or-winning arthouse drama that brought the filmmaker to prominence.
The tangled love lives of Ann, Cynthia and John (Andie MacDowell, Laura San Giacomo and Peter Gallagher) are complicated further by the arrival of an odd young man, Graham (James Spader). The characters are fairly stereotyped (there’s the free-spirited artist, the bossy lawyer, the comedy barfly…), but brilliantly played by the then relatively unknown cast. The static energy between Ann and Graham crackles like a video screen; Spader’s Cannes award-winning performance is magnetic, while MacDowell shows she’s so much more than the queen of rom-coms/L’Oréal lady.
Soderbergh’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, written in just 8 days, fizzes gently with intelligence, honesty and wit. It’s a film composed entirely of conversations; adults listening and not listening, putting up barriers and letting them down. Sort of like David Cronenberg’s Crash, also starring James Spader. Except this is sexy, and Crash is… not.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape fetishises moviemaking as much as anything else; an autobiographical stamp by the prolific Soderbergh, who can work across genres and still makes his “last film” every couple of years. This is his independent debut, and it feels incredibly accomplished for a 26-year-old filmmaker. It’s erotic without being explicit; mature without being pretentious.
This is a quiet, natural drama, whose influence spreads from Patrick Marber’s rip-off Closer to the Coupling episode The Cupboard of Patrick’s Love. Made on a shoestring budget, the film is carried by award-winning performances, writing and hair. You should watch this movie… because you’re worth it.