Unhappy marriages await us all, apparently. No point resisting it, it’ll happen to you, me and everyone you know. If it happens to those in the escapism that cinema provides, surely, it’ll be an inevitability for the real world too. Sex, Lies, and Videotape opens with an unhappy marriage of sorts. There is security and faithfulness for a time, but that isn’t enough to stop the mind from wandering. Those horrid questions of “what could have been?” are asked without consequence. Steven Soderbergh marks his first feature film with authority and competency but reflects the unfocused style he would utilise for years to come.
He is a filmmaker with broad talent, but they are commercial and simplified. He has no greater, larger or intrinsic meaning, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape sets that style up. There is no enchantment or greater vision in mind. His dialogue is abrupt and forgettable. Sharing this between a predictably simple love triangle, we are given a vague feeling for who Ann Bishop Mullany (Andie MacDowell), John Mullany (Peter Gallagher) and Graham Dalton (James Spader) are. They ruminate on the titular three ideas, often conversing or limiting themselves to sex, lying, and videotapes. That is all they do, and while MacDowell and Spader are cast well, the dialogue prohibits them from going beyond that level of amicable competency Soderbergh often provides.
It is a style that would serve him well for decades. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is no better or worse than High Flying Bird. For all Soderbergh’s innovation, there is a real lack of individualism on display. For this feature, there is an undeniable hook between desire and lust. It is toyed with, but not with real interest. Sex in cinema needn’t always be biting or provocative, and Soderbergh surely knows this. It is the implications and allusions that make Sex, Lies, and Videotape’s interesting moments so versatile. They are limited, however, because of those niggling dialogue issues.
There is no admonishment within Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Soderbergh sets the scene perfectly for such commentary and shies away from it spectacularly. He has a knack for doing so, hoping the easy way out will take him down a route of experience and happy endings. Not happy with your life? Ditch it. Go on. That appears to be the suggestion Soderbergh offers, and it works for Ann and Graham, anyway. Whether its practice in the real world would prove fruitful is unknowable. But when Soderbergh utilises fiction so closely cut to the real world, there is an expectation of consequence for these harmful actions. No such luck, and the weak fantasy on display is underdeveloped, but supported constantly by a strong cast.