Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.
Two film festivals, divided by geography, sensibility, and season: While this year’s Cannes won’t arrive for another four months, America’s closest equivalent begins in just a few short hours. Sundance, from which yours truly will be filing daily dispatches, is like Cannes’ goofier, more laidback American cousin; it too inspires mass pilgrimages, but the atmosphere, the weather, and especially the movies are awfully different. In fact, it’s almost unheard of for a prizewinner in Park City to score more metal on the French Riviera, largely because both festivals usually insist on world-premiering their competition titles. But I said almost for a reason, because once, way back in 1989, a movie did make that journey, from winning big at Sundance to doing the same at Cannes.
The trouble with writing about Sex, Lies, And Videotape is that it’s tempting to focus entirely on what it achieved, instead of what it is. There’s little danger of overstating the big impact this little movie made. It reshaped the entire American independent film landscape, mainly by proving that low-budget pictures produced outside of Hollywood could be wildly profitable. The film turned Sundance, then a tiny fringe festival up in the mountains of Utah, into the ground zero for acquisition it is today, while inspiring the major studios to invest in art-house divisions. Sex, Lies put Miramax on the map, as Bob and Harvey Weinstein mastered the art of earning a fortune from films that don’t cost one. And the movie made a few careers, including those of a Southern starlet named Andie MacDowell, who proved she could do more as an actress than play arm candy for Tarzan, and a skinny, nervous wunderkind named Steven Soderbergh.
Critics often mention Cannes when they mention Sex, Lies, And Videotape, reminding everyone of the time the Palme D’Or went to a 27-year-old, still the youngest winner of that coveted award. But it was Sundance that launched the film, just as surely as the film transformed Sundance. By the time Soderbergh arrived in Cannes, he’d already stormed Park City with a rough cut featuring unfinished sound (some would say the sound remains unfinished, at least during the phone-call scenes), won that fest’s coveted Audience Award, and ended a bidding war for his first feature by selling it to Miramax. Sex, Lies was originally scheduled to play in the sidebar festival Director’s Fortnight, where Sundance winners like Whiplash and Fruitvale Station still get relegated today. But it eventually got upgraded to the main competition in Cannes proper—a move that surely had something to do with the buzz the film had been steadily building since January.
Or maybe it was just that Sex, Lies fit the young-turk vibe of Cannes ’89 perfectly. The lineup was loaded with fresh talent and early works: There was Sweetie, the transporting first feature from future Palme winner Jane Campion; Cinema Paradiso, the beloved second effort by Italian writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore, which would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; and Jim Jarmusch’s terrific Mystery Train. To those covering the event from ground level, including Vincent Canby and Carrie Rickey, the “picture to beat” was Spike Lee’s rollicking Brooklyn masterpiece Do The Right Thing. It was brash, controversial, and socially/politically significant, and it arrived at Cannes with Lee, whose famously lively press conference solidified it as the lighting-rod talking-point movie of the festival.
But Spike Lee didn’t win the Palme. Instead, it was Soderbergh, on May 24, 1989, who took home the festival’s highest honor, while one of the film’s stars, James Spader, claimed the Best Actor award. “Never, never thought that this would happen,” the dazed-looking director remarked during the post-award-ceremony press conference. He’s probably not being modest, and it’s easy to imagine him expressing similar sentiments about the entire success story of his out-of-nowhere debut—the way it would go on to make an impressive-for-its-size $24 million in the U.S., and to score its creator his first Oscar nomination (for Original Screenplay, in which he’d compete again with Do The Right Thing).
Could anyone involved with Sex, Lies, And Videotape have guessed that it would be a game changer? It’s the kind of intimately scaled effort that generally precedes a breakthrough—a foot-in-the-door work from a filmmaker operating within his modest means. Soderbergh wrote it in just eight days during a cross-country road trip, and shot it in 30, on a budget of $1.2 million and with a tiny cast of actors, not all of them his first choices. Even the stylizing of the title, usually in lower-case letters, seems to emphasize minimalism. But this is also one of those movies that stuffs a lot of ideas into a little package, and where the character’s lives seem to extend far beyond the timeframe and the film frame, spilling over into pasts and futures the audience can’t help but imagine.
The story is deceptively, correspondingly compact: In Baton Rouge, businessman John (Peter Gallagher) cheats on his sexually disinterested wife Ann (Andie MacDowell) with her lascivious sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who’s either an extrovert or just plain loud, depending on who you ask. Into this unhealthy love triangle wanders Graham (James Spader), an old college buddy John hasn’t seen in close to a decade. Graham has reinvented himself as a nomad, picking up and going whenever he pleases. He’s also become deeply consumed by a fetish, his need to videotape women talking about their sex lives. It isn’t long before the two sisters are pulled into the orbit of his obsession.
Composed primarily of two-actor scenes, with Soderbergh rotating among different pairings, Sex, Lies, And Videotape often has a black box theater quality. (Though no one would confuse its more naturalistic dialogue for the rat-a-tat verbal warfare of David Mamet, there are moments that recall that playwright’s Sexual Perversity In Chicago.) Soderbergh can hardly be credited/blamed for pioneering the prototypical indie talkfest; that legacy rests more firmly with the true father of American indie cinema, John Cassavetes. Even so, Soderbergh did demonstrate the affordable merits of assembling an excellent cast, dropping them into a small handful of locations, and penning loaded dialogue for them to make their own. Besides Spader (more on him later), Sex, Lies is an excellent showcase for two actresses often wasted in the decade that followed, with MacDowell complicating the sweetness that would later become her perfunctory love-interest persona, and Giacomo exhibiting a vivaciousness that her future sitcom gig, Just Shoot Me, rarely exploited.
As the title suggests, nearly every scene is in some way about sex—who wants it, who doesn’t, who’s getting it, who wants more from it. Even when the characters aren’t talking explicitly about sex (“Never take advice from someone who doesn’t know you intimately,” Graham tells Ann), they’re talking around it. But while the Weinsteins used the promise of hot-and-steamy action to successfully sell Sex, Lies, And Videotape to an eager adult audience, there’s actually precious little nudity or lovemaking in the film—and what we do see is sometimes more clinical than erotic. Notably, Soderbergh begins the film in a psychiatrist’s office: Without quite tipping into psychoanalysis himself, at least until the glorified therapy session of a climax, the filmmaker reveals the various ways his characters use sex as a conduit—a way to bypass discussing their real issues, or to channel their resentments, or to avoid a deeper form of intimacy.
Unanswered questions hang heavily in the air. When did things go sour between Ann and her sister, or between Ann and her husband? When did John start seeing Cynthia? And who was Graham in college, years and years earlier, before he stripped his life down to a code? Spader’s interloper is the film’s greatest enigma, gatecrashing the movie with his contradictions. Championing truth as an essential value, even as he interacts chiefly through the distorting scrim of a camera lens, Graham enters the picture like a mythic force, come to sort out this dysfunctional family unit with his lacerating honesty. But by the end, when Ann “turns the tables” (his words) to get to the root of his self-imposed impotency, he looks no more enlightened or any less screwed up than any of them. Spader, who would go on to play a whole spectrum of sexual adventurers and deviants, has the same magnetic pull on the viewer as he does on the characters. He makes you want to crack the mystery of this man, to shatter the wall he’s erected between himself and the world. Spader earned his award.
But about that wall: Even then a prescient student of the ways technology reshapes modern living (remember, he helped pioneer the day-and-date release strategy), Soderbergh understood the camera as a distancing device—a way for Graham to put safe space between himself and the women he films. The filmmaker has been forthright about some of the personal inspirations for Sex, Lies, And Videotape, explaining how the film grew at least partially out of a failed relationship of his own, just like Graham’s “project.” That makes the character something of an onscreen surrogate, which becomes hard to miss when Graham “directs” Cynthia to be honest during her interview, or when Graham and Ann sit down for a revealing conversation at a restaurant. Doesn’t his identification of the different ways the two of them are self-conscious sound an awful lot like an explanation of the relationship between a director and an actor?
Look at the way MacDowell touches her wine glass during the above scene, especially during the discussion of Graham’s impotence. According to the commentary on the DVD, MacDowell began performing that action without prompting—the script mentions the glass a few times, but never dictates that Ann caresses it—and Soderbergh resisted mentioning that she was doing it, for fear that a natural choice might become an unnatural gesture. It’s proof not just that MacDowell knows exactly how to play this character, but also that Soderbergh was already thinking as a filmmaker about how to shoot and interact with performers. There are only a couple of telltale signs—like a distractingly showy dolly zoom during one of the film’s only sex scenes—that Sex, Lies, And Videotape is a debut. Soderbergh would grow immensely as a visual stylist from here, eventually developing an unmistakable aesthetic. But there are already hints of that distinct imprint here, particularly in the editing: The opening scene is one of several that plays around with non-synchronous sound (a technique Soderbergh would arguably perfect a decade later in Out Of Sight), and the way the film loops back to Ann’s interview after the fact is nascent proof that few toy with chronology as expertly as the future director of The Limey.
Before he “retired” a couple of years ago—his supposedly final feature, Behind The Candelabra, premiered at Cannes, bringing his career full circle—Soderbergh was among the most eclectic and prolific of working American directors. After Sex, Lies, he suffered a couple of commercial failures, reinvented himself as an ambassador of cinematic cool, won an Oscar, made a trilogy of Hollywood star vehicles, and got into the regular habit of alternating crowd-pleasers with adventurous experiments. That last hallmark of Soderbergh’s legacy, his oscillation between art and entertainment, can be traced right back to his fledgling step behind the camera. Sex, Lies, And Videotape is unquestionably an art movie, a serious drama about deceit and connection and fulfillment, sexual and otherwise. But it’s also funny and approachable and imminently re-watchable—enough so that it makes a kind of perfect sense that this was the movie that ripped down the wall separating supposedly “niche” independent filmmaking from the mainstream audiences that might have an appetite for it. It’s a Cannes movie and a Sundance movie, in the best sense of both.
Did it deserve to win? Sex, Lies, And Videotape is wonderful, an auspicious debut for a director with several more classics in him. But here’s the truth, Ruth: Do The Right Thing is one for the ages, and in almost every regard—real-world resonance, vibrancy, performances, raw filmmaking—it’s the superior picture. (That it went home empty-handed is pretty absurd; jury president Wim Wenders remarked later that he was put off by the “unheroic” behavior of the main character, Mookie, prompting Spike Lee to declare that he had a Louisville Slugger with the German director’s name on it.) Besides the aforementioned Sweetie and Mystery Train—two more striking early triumphs from filmmakers on the rise—the lineup also boasted strong work from a veteran: the harrowing Black Rain, Shôhei Imamura’s film about the aftermath of Hiroshima.
Next up: The Leopard