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Festival de Cannes 72 Countdown: sex, lies and videotape, 1989

We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

sex, lies and videotape, 1989

Palme d’Or – Steven Soderbergh

Prix d’interprétation masculine – James Spader

FIPRESCI Prix – Steven Soderbergh

Think back to when you were 26 years old, what were you doing with your life? At the age of 26, Steven Soderbergh was busy collecting the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his debut film, sex, lies and videotape. He made history as he was the youngest solo director to win the major prize at the festival back in 1989. In addition to the Palme d‘Or, sex, lies and videotape also saw James Spader walk away with the Best Actor award. The film would be released in August 1989, and would become a hit. It helped mark its distributor Miramax Films, on the map, and the rest is history as they say.

Soderbergh has been in the game for a while now; directing films like Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), the Ocean’s franchise (2001–18), Magic Mike (2012), Logan Lucky (2017), Unsane (2018). With his films grossing over 2.2 billion dollars worldwide and securing nine Oscar nominations, (winning seven). It’s hard to imagine that once upon a time, Soderbergh was just a schmuck like the rest of us.

“The best way to describe sex, lies and videotape is that it’s a film that was made by a Gen-Xer for Gen-Xers.”

Upon first glance, the 26 year old Soderbergh didn’t exactly look like a genius auteur. As Peter Biskind puts it in his excellent book “Down and Dirty Pictures”, ‘Soderbergh wore glasses with thick frames… He was tall, about six feet, and skinny, with long graceless limbs. He looked, as one journalist unflattering described him, like a ‘stork with red hair.’’

The best way to describe sex, lies and videotape is that it’s a film that was made by a Gen-Xer for Gen-Xers. Born in 1963, Soderbergh falls into demographic cohort known as Generation X, which follows the baby boomers and precedes the Millennials. In the late 80s-early 90s, Generation X’s were characterized as slackers, cynical and disaffected. Certainly the characters in Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape share some of the these traits. With the likes of Graham (James Spader) being a spot-on representation of the typical Gen-Xer, bleak, cynical and just drifting throughout his life.

In the film, Graham has returned to Baton Rouge after spending an undisclosed amount of time living on the road, he spends some time staying at the house of an old college friend John (Peter Gallagher), who has become a lawyer (who Graham describes as worse type of human being). John’s marriage to Ann (Andie MacDowell) is strained, as he happens to be cheating on her with her extrovert sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

Ann is a sexually repressed woman, who spends her time worrying about garbage. She confesses to her therapist at the start of the film that she has never had an orgasm and that her sex life with John, is pretty much non-existent. Graham is experiencing his own sexual problems. He confides to Ann that he is impotent when in the presence of another person. In fact, we come to discover, that the only way Graham can ‘get off’ is to watch videotapes of women detailing their sex lives.

“Ultimately, sex, lies and videotape is a journey of self-discovery… Soderberg managed to captured the complexities of human relationships.”

Ultimately, sex, lies and videotape is a journey of self-discovery. Ann learns to become her own woman and embrace her sexuality. Graham learns to let go of the past, and to open up to other people. In the film’s climax, the video camera is turned on him and he is the one confessing.

The relationship between the two sisters is repaired, and Cynthia learns to take responsibility for her actions. Even John, faces up to the reality that he is a dirtbag and as a result of his lack of concentration at work, it is implied that he will be fired.

The fact that all of the four central characters develop and grow as individuals is a testament to Soderbergh’s writing. Each character feels like they belong in the real world. In terms of performances, each actor is perfectly suited to their character. Spader manages to capture the vulnerability that Graham is trying to suppress and the weirdness of the character without going over-the-top.

Graham is an oddball, but you can’t help but admire his bohemian, laid back approach to life. This is a man who prefers to own just one key, as he states in the film “I’m afraid it’s [the key] gonna get ripped off, or something, and I get more keys, and I just, I, you know, I just like having the one key, it’s clean.”

What made Soderbergh’s film so refreshing was its openness to discuss sex in a context that wasn’t seen as sleazy or pornographic. Soderbergh managed to captured the complexities of human relationships, their messiness and unhealthiness. The film basically delivers everything it promises in the title: plenty of sex, mountains of lies and your retro fill of videotapes


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