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Inhibitions and Exhibitionism,
This review is from: Sex, Lies And Videotape [VHS]  (VHS Tape)
Three out of five. That is what I mentally awarded this film after seeing it for the first time. To be frank, I was rather disappointed by it. As you can see, I now think it deserves the full five stars.
What changed? The film itself was obviously the same, although a second viewing cleared up a few minor points. I think that for some people, it takes more than one viewing to realise just how unusual and beautiful it is.
The first copy I owned (bought from amazon z-shops as, ironically, a certain megastore did not have copies on videotape and I did not then have a DVD player) was the one with Laura San Giacomo on the cover. Although she is the fourth cast member listed in the credits, she is the only one on the front and side of the packaging of that particular edition. My immediate reaction on seeing her was, "Yeah, like you're the main reason for watching this film".
It took a while for it to dawn on me that Ms San Giacomo is MARVELLOUS reason to see the film. Her character, Cynthia, in contrast to some drippy 1980s film heroines, lives by her own rules, and gets away with it. Sure, she has her vulnerable side, demonstrated when she asks Graham (James Spader) if he thinks she is pretty. However, she is not controlled by her insecurities, or by anybody else.
The casting director must have needed tact when casting San Giacomo. The script makes it clear that many people consider Cynthia's sister Ann (Andie MacDowell) to be the more attractive of the two. The casting is spot-on.
MacDowell, frequently seen on TV advertising skin- and hair-care products, looks very attractive in a conventional way. San Giacomo is equally attractive, but in a less conventional way, and is an extremely talented actress. This film is proof that MacDowell has more going for her than her looks: her acting is very good indeed. Peter Gallagher, as Ann's husband John, conveys the soullessness and lack of empathy that the part demands. Spader shows us Graham's vulnerability whilst not making him seem impossibly fragile.
However, all this talent would be wasted if it were not for Steven Soderbergh's brillliant script. This film is really original. How many other films have "sex" in the title, yet revolve around a central character who is impotent?
There are also many small details that intrigue the viewer, and there is much to think about. Only yesterday, it occured to me that it is unusual for a film hero not to have a job. Graham is unemployed and impotent, and yet portrayed as an individual with strengths as well as weaknesses.
The film's great strength, its dialogue, is, to some, its greatest weakness. Personally, I find the basic points clear enough. However, I do enjoy discussing different interpretations with other fans. Someone on-line recently suggested an interesting theory on the source of Graham's income.
The film's worst flaw, for me, is that we never find out what Ann's actual job is. Does she end up recycling the garbage about which she frets at the start of the film? (On this topic, what does she make of Graham's destruction of potentially re-useable videotapes, to say nothing of the camera itself?)
The film has its critics. One famously dismissed it as "a film about a guy playing with himself" (I paraphrase). Although that is accurate, it is about as misleading as calling it "a movie about a man running out of the ingredients for lemon tea". "sex, lies and videotape" has many themes, including fear, self-deception, pornography, sibling rivalry, inhibitions and exhibitionism.
If pressed to choose a central theme, I would call it "a film about female empowerment". Certainly, it is not generally described as a feminist film. It has a male writer-director and the male lead is billed ahead of the leading lady. It portrays Cynthia performing on tape as very sexy and empowering (an intriging notion, but not in accord with mainstream feminist thinking of the era). Ann is a wimp when it comes to defending Graham against John. In her defence, many real women are not the warrior-princess/vampire-slayer type. The film clearly shows Ann starting to take control of her life, including her sexuality.
This is an interesting, unusual, well-made, beautifully-photographed film. Furthermore, San Giacomo and Spader are amongst the sexiest people to ever appear on screen.
I would recommend this film to anyone who does not find it necessary for every movie to contain an exploding volcano or similar. If you like it the first time, watch it again. Like me, you may come to love it.