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Sex, Lies, and Videotape: A Long Psychoanalytic Session in Search of Truth

Perhaps it was the title that impressed (and misled) some Catholic critics, but Soderbergh's debut (Palme d'Or at Cannes 1989) is far from being a film of gratuitous and trivial transgressions. It foreshadows a present dominated and influenced by the explosion of social media.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Perhaps it was the title, a trio of words evoking the most imaginative transgressions (sex, drugs, and rock and roll), that impressed (and misled) some Catholic critics in the late ’90s, but Sex, Lies, and Videotape by Steven Soderbergh, awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1989, is far from a film of gratuitous and trivial transgressions. Indeed, the three questioned terms of the title are all present in the story.

A minimalist tale, where words are used with deliberation and relevance, favoring storytelling and seducing the viewer who discovers themselves as both a voyeur and an auditeur attracted by the conversations of the four young protagonists.

Sex… Ann is the enzyme of the story: everything revolves around her. She is a faithful wife, the perfect housewife; despite her young age, she doesn’t work because her husband’s status allows her to focus solely on the house. Ann is not interested in sex and is embarrassed when it is discussed. In fact, she believes “sex is overrated,” that it is given too much importance: “Women want to do it, but not for the reasons men think.” She has never tried masturbating, and talking about it with her psychologist makes her blush. She is happy to be married but is also a bit depressed and repressed by her yuppie husband, John, who is, unlike her, a passionate and vigorous lover.

A prototype of the Reagan-era go-getter (we are in Ronald Reagan’s America), the young lawyer cheats on his wife with her sister, Cynthia; he fears being caught and is jealous of both his wife and his sister-in-law for their jobs. Younger than Ann, Cynthia is certainly not the model of a good girl like her sister. She works in a pub, is uninhibited, exuberant, and curious. She loves sex, its practices, and transgressions. Graham, finally, is John’s friend, a strange yet fascinating type; he has returned to town after nine years to turn his life around. His problem is impotence, but he practices “mediated” sexual self-satisfaction.

Lies. Graham’s arrival in town inadvertently disrupts the regularity of the other characters’ relationships: an order seemingly sincere, nourished by a prudish exterior overloaded with lies and betrayal. John and Cynthia hide their adulterous affair without evident guilt. Ann is the unsuspecting victim of this conjunction of betrayal and falsehood. She cannot lie, being direct and sincere in her roles as wife, sister, and host. The lie wounds her but does not break her. For his part, Graham, despite declaring he is not a liar and claiming that “liars are second only to lawyers in the hierarchy of the lowest forms of human beings,” also has skeletons in his closet, a past of secrets and lies.

…and Videotape. Graham’s secret is not so much the videotapes but the private use he makes of them. They contain interviews earned through trust from women willing to speak freely about their sexuality. Discovering the content of the recordings, Ann is shocked and distances herself from the guest for whom she had found a place to stay and tries to prevent her curious and uninhibited sister from falling into the temptation of being filmed. Cynthia does not shy away from doing so, enriching it with an intimate and personal performance, offering it to the man who attracted her solely for having managed to unsettle her sister. Even Ann falls into the trap of seduction. Discovering the affair between her closest relatives drives her to yield to the transgression of the interview, but she manages to turn the tables skillfully.

The videotapes are the source of John’s fury and the end of the relationships among the four. Ann, however, will find the right balance in everything, demonstrating that “men learn to love the person they are attracted to, and women are always more attracted to the person they love.” The camera off and the snow effect on the TV open to an uncertain but imaginable ending.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a film about communication and the damage it causes when corrupted by lies. In love and friendship, communication is fundamental: it requires trust and truthfulness. Even communication “mediated” by the camera is never fully authentic, despite being obtained through trust. Its use can be distorted by selfish satisfaction, the inability to relate directly, and the impotence to love. A voluntary communication, instead, touches the other’s face and achieves its goal: it is responsible because it encompasses the will for the partner’s good. Ann is its purest and most authentic expression. She does not need mediation, nor lies. Even a relationship built on gratification has no hope except in fleetingness, but it is limited by a predetermined expiry date.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a film full of questions, a long psychoanalytic session exploring the private and entering the intimacy of people. It is a profound search for the truth in relationships and feelings. The dialogues, weak narration, slow and circular movements, or the very slow zoom-ins investigating the protagonists’ intimacy or affection, are reminiscent of Wim Wenders‘ films. Indeed, it is a film in the German director’s style, who awarded it. Despite its thirty-five years, Soderbergh’s debut retains the freshness of a present dominated and conditioned by the explosion of social media, with its immediate and ubiquitous relationships, but whose doping effects have put the authenticity of communication at risk. A film offering interesting reflections on contemporary relationships.

Renato Butera

Cinematografo, May 13, 2024

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