year 1989 brought us such Oscar-winning pictures as Driving Miss Daisy, Born on
the Fourth of July, Dead Poets
Society, and, of course, the blockbuster Batman. One picture, though, always stood out for me and was my personal
favorite of the year—Steven Soderbergh’s remarkable feature film debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The Academy
nominated it only for Original Screenplay. The Cannes Film Festival, however,
awarded it the Palme d’Or and the
Best Actor honor for James Spader. The movie put Soderbergh on the map,
establishing him as an innovative, provocative filmmaker who was unafraid to
take on challenging subjects.
Criterion Collection has produced a new, restored 4K digital transfer and a new
5.1 surround mix (from the original sound elements), supervised by Soderbergh.
The results, in the director’s own words that appear in an on-screen comment on
the restoration, are such that one should “throw away” all previous home video
(DVD, Blu-Ray) versions of the film—this is the definitive edition.
for only a little over a million dollars, the story is really a chamber drama
of sorts that focuses on four characters. There is Ann (wonderfully played by
Andie MacDowell), a sexually uptight and frigid housewife married to John
(Peter Gallagher), a successful, go-getter lawyer who happens to be a lying
philanderer. He’s having an affair with Ann’s precocious and definitely not sexually uptight sister, Cynthia (Laura
San Giacomo), who works as a bartender. Enter Graham, an old college friend of
John’s, who has returned to town after nine years—and he is one strange dude.
James Spader delivers a nuanced, sensitive, but assuredly slightly perversely
skewed performance—one that pretty much defined the kinds of roles he would
play for years to come. Like Ann, he, too, is sexually inhibited due to
something that happened with his college girlfriend.
days the only way Graham “gets off” is by videotaping various female
acquaintances and interviewing them about their sex lives—and then viewing them
when he’s alone.
Ann suspects her husband is betraying her, she finds Graham oddly fascinating
and they become friends until she discovers Graham’s “habit.” This proclivity
is not a problem for Cynthia, though—she happily makes a video for Graham.
things turn out for the quartet of characters plays out like therapy. In fact,
Ann is seeing a therapist throughout the picture. Soderbergh has subtly
structured and presented the story such that, in many ways, we, the audience,
are the therapists observing the characters as they reveal their secrets.
1989, the material was shocking. Without any nudity or explicit sex scenes, Sex, Lies, and Videotape manages to be
extremely visceral, voyeuristic, and, yes, sexy. It explores how the most
intimate desires of human beings might seem kinky or perverse to some, and yet
be perfectly normal for others. The way the “therapy” of the film addresses
these hang-ups in the final moments is revelatory. Soderbergh may have never
written or directed a more perfect picture.
new transfer looks and sounds remarkable. An audio commentary from 1998,
featuring Soderbergh and filmmaker Neil LaBute, accompanies the film.
supplements are up to Criterion’s usual high standards. There’s a new
introduction to the film by Soderbergh, along with vintage interviews with the
writer/director from 1992 and 1990. A new documentary on the making of the
film, featuring actors MacDowell, Gallagher, and San Giacomo, is especially
informative and insightful. James Spader makes an appearance in a vintage 1989
appearance on the Today Show. There’s
a deleted scene with commentary by Soderbergh. A new conversation between sound
editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake and composer Cliff Martinez explores the
challenges of the location shoot in Baton Rouge. Finally, Blake takes us on a
journey through the evolution of sound restorations. The booklet features an
essay by critic Amy Taubin and excerpts from Soderbergh’s 1990 book about the
Sex, Lies, and
still relevant and powerful. The picture reveals a young filmmaker who is
exploding with talent, and four brave actors who dig deeply within to reveal
all. It’s a masterpiece of independent filmmaking. Pick it up.