"People are in general not candid over sexual matters," Sigmund Freud observed. "They do not show their sexuality freely but to conceal it they wear a heavy overcoat woven of a tissue of lies, as though the weather were bad in the world of sexuality." The weather is overcast in the world of sex for the four main characters in Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape, the American film that won the Palme d'Or (Best Film) at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.
In the opening scene of this psychodrama set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Ann, a bored housewife, is talking to her therapist about garbage. Although she used to be troubled by airline fatalities and starving Ethiopian children, now it's garbage that is on her mind; she is even dreaming about it. Of course, as her therapist probes further, Ann confesses that she doesn't let her husband John touch her anymore.
John, a lawyer who has just become a junior partner at a firm, is having a steamy affair with Cynthia, Ann's sister who works as a bartender. When Graham, a college friend John hasn't seen for nine years, comes to town, he spends an evening at their house. Ann takes him apartment hunting and, starved for companionship, they reveal secrets to each other over lunch. She finds sex to be overrated, and he admits to being impotent. Graham gets through to Ann when he says: "I remember reading somewhere that men learn to love the person they're attracted to and women become more and more attracted to the person they love."
Graham's hobby is making videos of women talking about their sexual experiences; it is also the only way he gets turned on. Eventually, Cynthia finds her way to his apartment and eagerly allows Graham to film her. Ann is infuriated by her sister's brazen sexuality. When she then discovers evidence of Cynthia's affair with John, Ann decides to go to Graham herself. In a showdown, they both remove their masks and relate to one another on a level of intimacy neither one has felt for years.
sex, lies, and videotape is a film that will shock some and titillate others, but no one who connects with its comic shadings can fail to admire the exceptional performances by Andie MacDowell as Ann, Laura San Giacomo as Cynthia, Peter Gallagher as John, and James Spader (who received the Best Actor Award at Cannes) as Graham. The sibling rivalry between the sisters sizzles, and the men reveal the toll of treating women as little more than objects of their desire.
Steven Soderbergh circles around the ever shifting pattern of contemporary sexual politics, shedding light on the fears and desires of men and women, the difference between sex and love, the destructiveness of lying, and the danger of voyeurism and detachment as a way of life for the video generation. In her book Courage My Love, Merle Shain wrote of contemporary relationships: "Emotional support is the only thing we really need each other for now. And if we aren't able to do that for each other, there won't be any reason to be together at all." Until more couples realize that truth, the weather in the world of sexuality will remain overcast.