Sony // 1989 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // December 4th, 2009
"Nothing's what I thought it was. John's a bastard. Let's make a videotape."
Though written in just eight days and shot on a miniscule budget, sex, lies, and videotape became a surprise hit and watershed movie for the independent cinema boom of the 1990's. After earning the Palme d'Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival (the festival's highest prize), the movie launched the careers of two pioneers: writer/director Steven Soderbergh and Miramax Films. Now, 20 years after its initial splash, Sony is releasing a remastered, director-approved sex, lies, and videotape transfer on Blu-ray.
John (Peter Gallagher, The Underneath) and Ann Mullany (Andie MacDowell, Groundhog Day) are a vaguely content, passionless married couple living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. John is a high-powered attorney who gets his kicks outside the marriage by sleeping with Ann's extroverted sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo, Just Shoot Me). Ann tries to placate herself buying nice things for the house, and gets her kicks through intimate therapy sessions.
Then Graham (James Spader, Pretty in Pink) steps in. Graham is an old college buddy of John's who is moving back to Baton Rouge. Though the two were frat brothers 10 years earlier, they have grown into very different, almost antagonistic, people. Graham is a soft-spoken, introspective bohemian, who resents John for being both a liar and a lawyer (if that's not an oxymoron). John finds Graham an annoying weirdo who doesn't respect the conventions of polite society.
What especially annoys John is that both his wife and his mistress find themselves drawn to the enigmatic Graham. Even worse, it turns out Graham likes to videotape women taking about their sexual history. I don't see what could possibly go wrong...
Soderbergh has mentioned that sex, lies, and videotape was playing in West Berlin cinemas at the same time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Confused East Germans ran to the theaters, expecting the suggestively titled film to be a titillating capitalist skin flick. In the early '90s, I was barely a teenager and eagerly awaited the home video release for similarly carnal reasons. Like those East Germans, I was disappointed by the film's unpleasant cerebral eroticism, and pretty much ignored its emotional substance altogether.
Having given the film another chance, I found myself riveted, much like the initial audiences in Cannes. But I was also disturbed, needing a long shower to cleanse myself afterward. These emotions are to the film's credit.
It's fitting the commentary track pairs Soderbergh with writer/director Neil LaBute (The Company of Men), since sex, lies, and videotape is a similarly themed, superior version of the latter's films. While LaBute's films plum the worst aspects of humanity through the lens of romantic relationships, sex, lies, and videotape shows both the worst and best of us, even throwing in some other stuff I still can't figure out. Characters do horrible things to each other and themselves, but there is redemption -- which makes the experience not only bearable, but sometimes transcendent.
The picture and sound on this Blu-ray were thoroughly remastered and approved by Soderbergh, and it's hard to quibble with his vision. Though this is a low-budget, character-driven drama, sex, lies, and videotape greatly benefits from the 1080p upgrade. While the Baton Rouge exteriors are rarely used, there is an ever-present humidity and sweatiness that elevates the unseemliness of the film. You will see now each bead of sweat on a character's bare skin -- whether you want to or not.
In addition, the Blu-ray also has a remastered TrueHD 5.1 lossless audio track; though dialogue heavy, it's certainly clean and clear. The ambient sounds are focused on the front channels, so there's very little use of the rear speakers. All in all, I can't imagine the film has ever been presented better in a home-theater setting.
For the commentary, Soderbergh and LaBute discuss the making of sex, lies, and videotape in great detail, but there are also long stretches where the two simply discuss filmmaking in general -- especially independent filmmaking. It's one of the most thoughtful and engaging discussions I've come across and should not be missed. The rest of the extras provide less interest. Like many film studies, Sony seems intent on making good use of the BD-Live feature, but their MovieIQ won't provide much that can't be found on an IMDb page. I was excited to check out the new featurette on the cast's 20th Reunion at the Sundance Film Festival, but was underwhelmed. This is only a few minutes long and Spader was not in attendance.
Despite its suggestive title, this is not a kinky exploitation movie. It is an intense drama about relationships, regret, forgiveness, human frailty, and the many permutations of human sexuality. It's a tall order, but sex, lies, and videotape delivers. It is so real and so intense you sometimes feel like you're prying in on intimate private conversations.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes