Criterion Review: SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)

Steve Soderbergh’s Palme d’Or winning debut feature comes to the Criterion collection

Sex, Lies, and Videotape was one of the early films that opened my mind up to cinema. As a teen in the UK, drawn to a provocative title, that turned out to be more cerebral than salacious. A film that took both the audience award at Sundance, and Palme d’Or at Canne, and showed the potential of American indie filmmaking, as well as those of auteur Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike, The Girlfriend Experience), one that finally joins the Criterion Collection.


With his provocative feature debut, twenty-six-year-old Steven Soderbergh trained his focus on the complexities of human intimacy and deception in the modern age. Housewife Ann (Andie MacDowell) feels distant from her lawyer husband, John (Peter Gallagher), who is sleeping with her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). When John’s old friend Graham (a magnetic, Cannes-award-winning James Spader) comes to town, Ann is drawn to the soft-spoken outsider, eventually uncovering his startling private obsession: videotaping women as they confess their deepest desires. A piercingly intelligent and flawlessly performed chamber piece, in which the video camera becomes a charged metaphor for the characters’ isolation, the Palme d’Or–winning sex, lies, and videotape changed the landscape of American film, helping pave the way for the thriving independent scene of the 1990s.

The film centers around the troubled marriage of housewife Ann (Andie MacDowell) and her husband, John (Peter Gallagher), who also happens to be having an affair with the Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Into their lives comes Graham (James Spader), an old college friend of Johns, carrying with him a quiet, poetic air, as well as a camcorder and a mysterious set of tapes. His predilections soon become apparent, a fetish for pulling the deep desires and experiences from women, recording them, and rewatching alone. As he makes a connection with both Cynthia and Ann, the secrets kept by the sisters and John begin to emerge and force their issues, as well as those plaguing Graham, into the open.

Soderbergh’s debut certainly feels like a product of it’s time, embracing that cultural shift from the 80s to the 90s, pitting an artful type versus a cheating, money-grabbing lawyer, grungy lo-fi visuals, it’s central prop of a large camcorder being perhaps the most evident indicator of the era. But the ideas behind the film haven’t dated at all, in fact they seem even more relevant today. Love, sex, and lies are constants, while technology has interject itself into aspects of our relationships on a whole other level. Every cell phone is a camcorder, our facades propped up by app profiles. Soderbergh’s work strips much of this away, a cerebral, character driven affair that delves into the headspace of it’s characters, aided by some of the finest work in the careers of Spader and MacDowell. It’s more talky than sexy, and a serious air is nicely balanced by some sharp, funny, and genuine moments.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is oft cited as one of the films that sparked the Indie revolution of the 90s, and it certainly fueled the rise of Miramax and it’s now disgraced former figurehead. Perhaps it’s biggest legacy comes from ensuing career of Soderbergh himself. The film shows many of the bold moves he became known for, innovative shots that serve to immerse in emotional and physical moments, with dialogue overlapping and bleeding from one scene to another, adding to the film’s voyeuristic/intrusive quality. He adopted a a flat, unadorned aesthetic, it looks and feels like the low budget indie it is, but its crafted as such that you wouldn’t want it any other way.The film also marks the cinematic debut of Cliff Martinez, a composer responsible for some of the most resonant scores you hear today including Drive, Traffic, Spring Breakers, and The Neon Demon. It’s a great pairing of talents and a obvious showcase for their future potential, while deftly exploring aspects of human sexuality and relationships, along with all the baggage that comes with it.

The Package

This Criterion release presents a new 4K transfer from an original 35mm print. It’s a treatment that maintains the lo-fi aesthetic of Soderbergh’s work, while updating it’s features. Detail, depth, color and contrast are all exemplary. The release comes in a slip cover which houses a card-case housing the disc, as well as a handsomely produced 46 page booklet. This contains images from the film, details on the restoration, an essay by critic Amy Taubin, and most interestingly excerpts from Steven Soderbergh’s diaries written during filming. Special features are plentiful and delve deeply into the film:

  • Audio commentary from 1998 featuring Soderbergh in conversation with filmmaker Neil LaBute: Soderbergh is always a interesting filmmaker to listen to, and he strikes a nice rapport with fellow filmmaker LaBute. The most interesting stuff in here really comes from his details about pushback from studios/casting people about his choices (MacDowell not being his first choice for instance), as well as other production tidbits.
  • New introduction by Soderbergh: A short interview (~7 minitues), where the writer/director talks about the idea behind the film, and how it took shape. He does answer some “fan questions” which is a great addition that leaves you wanting more.
  • Interviews with Soderbergh from 1990 and 1992: Two slightly longer archival interviews (over 10 minutes apiece) where in one Soderbergh talks about various aspects of the film including the cast, technical points as well as thematic arcs, while the second focuses a little more on his career since the film and his love of cinema in general.
  • New documentary about the making of the film, featuring actors Peter Gallagher, Andie MacDowell, and Laura San Giacomo: Entitled Something in the Air: Making “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” , a new 30 minute doc. with the main cast , who share stories about the production, notably experiences working with Soderbergh, and how they fleshed out the characters they played.
  • Interview from 1989 with actor James Spader: An old interview from the Today Show. Short and lacking any real substance, but worth watching for his thoughts on the film’s reception at Canne.
  • New conversation between sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake and composer Cliff Martinez: Since this feature, both have gone on to have fine careers, often working with Soderbergh again. It’s a great little featurette (~20 min) where they discuss their evolving collaboration with the director, as well as specifics about Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
  • Deleted scene with commentary by Soderbergh: I’m always effusive with praise when a deleted scene comes with director commentary.
  • Demonstration of sound restorations through the years: Larry Blake returns to talk about the restoration work done on the film. Nice technical insights here about preservation, intent, with regards to music, sound, and most notably dialogue.
  • Trailers: A director’s cut trailer and a Miramax cut trailer.

The Bottom Line

Despite being about to hit it’s 30th Anniversary, Sex, Lies, and Videotape hasn’t lost any of it’s edge. It remains a sharp, heady, and often amusing look at sex, love, and relationships. It’s undeniably one of Soderbergh’s best, a distinct and engaging turn as both writer and director, and now one of the best releases put out by Criterion.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is available via Criterion from July 17th

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