sex, lies and videotape

1989; written and directed by Steven Soderbergh; 100 mins

God damn! This long-awaited viewing of Steven Soderbergh‘s Palme d’Or winning and surprisingly confident debut movie* was well worth it! Like a sleek mix of Bleak Moments and prototype 90s Indie film, for a movie that’s got yuppies talking about heavy petting, it’s one of the most gripping and sexy movies I’ve seen since forever ago!

The film begins with the arrival of Graham to the house of Ann and John. Ann is prudish, sheltered and also seeing a therapist. John is a typical 80s yuppie, materialistic and shallow. Graham and John knew each other way back but they no longer get along. John gets Ann to help Graham look for an apartment but after an awkward dinner, the two stay apart. As it happens, John is also having an affair with Ann’s sister, Cynthia, who also becomes intrigued by this mysterious newcomer but when she goes round to his apartment on the pretext of fucking him, she discovers that he doesn’t have sex but rather prefers to videotape women talking about it…

I don’t think anyone could’ve guessed how mercurial Soderbergh’s career would be from this film and looking back at it, 28 years and nearly as many movies hence, it’s surprising how much it looks like a Soderbergh movie despite the fact I’d be buggered if I could tell you what that means! He’s done war movies, heist movies, biopics, comedies, action flicks, experimental, sci-fi, noir, and sprawling political thrillers. All different genres, all visually different, all with something different to say, so it’d be safe to call him a journeyman!

Right here at the start we have a writer/director who’s clearly set out to just tell a good story with some interesting, flawed characters, who fastidiously avoids showing any actual sex (as the afore-linked video shows: get in, get out). What we don’t think of him as is a writer; he, more often than not, works with writers. Here, apparently, Soderbergh wrote the characters as different facets of his own personality. Now that concept could so easily yield four one-dimensional characters but he gets over that hump because he’s too smart to have guys getting it on with chicks who make doe-eyes. Graham is a listener but only because he has no choice. Ann is a prude but not just because of her man.

What this film has is a gentle but constant rising tension with intrigue that shakes off it’s soap opera trappings and gets under your skin, helped in no small part by a fantastically, unexpectedly Lynchian score by Cliff Martinez (one of my absolute favourite composers).

This sort of sexy material should be catnip for James Spader but he’s still giving his all in a sensitive performance with edge and Andie McDowell is fucking fantastic! It’s one of those star-making turns that is so subtly managed as Ann goes from buttoned-up housewife to decisive, aware and self-aware, kind-of avenger that you realise her line reading in Four Weddings must’ve just been an off day!

*Narrative debut. His first film, technically, was the Yes concert film, 9012Live.

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