Ann and John are in a boring marriage. He is a rampant lawyer, she is a sexually repressed housewife. Ann unsuccessfully copes with her frigidity by going to therapy. John successfully copes with his wife’s frigidity by Ann and John are in a boring marriage. He is a rampant lawyer, she is a sexually repressed housewife. Ann unsuccessfully copes with her frigidity by going to therapy. John successfully copes with his wife’s frigidity by having an affair with her uninhibited sister Cynthia. The marital home holds until John invites over an old college friend of his, Graham, now a drifter with a troubled pastime: he records on videotape women talking about their sexuality, so as to get around his own impotence. As Graham’s fetish comes to light, all the four of them will have to face their truths and lies in front of the camera. 

An anti-porn movie

Sex, Lies, and Videotape shows almost no sex, yet it lives up to its title. Sexuality is indeed at the center of the film, it’s just carried out via words. The film builds its strength upon the usual weaknesses of the erotic movie: script and acting. And in doing so, it optimizes its low budget and defines, as Sean Axmaker of IndieWire puts it, “a certain indie aesthetic”:

simple, uncluttered locations, small scenes with minimal casts, tonal music, provocative (and thoroughly contemporary) subject matter, uncomfortable intimacy, and mature discussions of adult issues and concerns within a personal framework.

It’s not just this attitude, though, that allows Sex, Lies, and Videotape to stand as the quintessential American independent film. It is generally agreed that its critical and commercial success in 1989 put the spotlight on two future indie institutions, the festival and the studio that bet on its release: Sundance and Miramax. The path that led American independent cinema into the mainstream was set out. In the womb of an anti-porn movie, Indiewood had just been conceived.

Where the truth lies

We are bringing them the plague, and they don’t even know it.

Reportedly stated by Sigmund Freud while sailing for the first time to America.

The centrality of sex in the film is not incidental – nor sly. The hot topic par excellence, sexuality leaves no short-cuts to the people talking about it, aside from silence. In the movie though, the camera eye has the characters speak the truth as if under hypnosis. It has them expose their lying, deep, true self. But above all, it enables them to regain control over their own life, as middle-class ideals start crumbling around them.

The protagonist is thus not just any peeping tom. His camcorder acts as a metaphor for psychoanalysis; his otherness to any form of commitment as a turn-of-the-century manifesto. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is indeed (as critic Rita Kempley claims) “a looking glass for a generation”. Its male characters embody the two faces of the American Generation X, the Yuppie and the Slacker, just as the former was descending and the latter rising (two years later, Grunge icon Kurt Cobain would reach stardom).

But in the end, not even this anti-hero will escape the technological stare he imposes on others. And as his quest for truth proves to be a lie, another metaphor makes its way in: the clash between cinema and real life.

All-Out Video 

The story of Sex, Lies, and Videotape at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival is legend. No one would have ever foretold that the low-budget debut film of a 26-year-old – who wrote the script in eight days – in competition because of a last-minute cancellation, would vanquish competitors of the likes of Spike Lee‘s Do The Right Thing and Giuseppe Tornatore‘s Cinema Paradiso, and win not one but three prices: the Prix d’interprétation masculine, the FIPRESCI Price and, most importantly, the Palme d’Or.

In hindsight, though, the signs were there, when considering that the Jury president was Wim Wenders. No wonder that a director obsessed with the stand-off between images, words, and lived life found – quote – “confidence in the future of the cinema” in Soderbergh’s videotapes.

This breakthrough couldn’t have happened even a decade earlier when camcorders hadn’t still broken into everyday life. Private and ready video recording is more than just a plot device. It is the very reason for the movie’s success. By having technology act as a go-between for the characters, Sex, Lies, and Videotape captures the essence of its time and – needless to say – our own: a brave new intimacy in a brave new world.