Written in eight days and shot over five weeks on a meager $1.2 million budget by a twenty-six-year-old first-time feature director with a no-star cast and zilch special effects, this independent film is now the surprise success story of the year. A hit at the U.S. Film Festival in January, the movie took the top prize at Cannes in May, as well as a Best Actor Award for James Spader, one of the four leading players. Suspicious as I am of communal swoons, I must confess the fuss is warranted.
In a dazzling feature debut, Steven Soderbergh proves himself a writer and director of uncommon gifts. He has fashioned a movie of prodigious power and feeling that is also high-spirited, hilarious and scorchingly erotic. Filmed on location in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — Soderbergh’s hometown — sex, lies and videotape begins with a therapy session. Ann, played by Andie MacDowell, is bitching to her shrink. Though her lawyer husband, John (Peter Gallagher), is an inveterate womanizer, Ann claims to be more vexed by the garbage-disposal system and the upcoming visit of a stranger, John’s college friend Graham (Spader). Unlike her bartender sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who is boffing John on the sly, the gorgeous Ann finds sex overrated.
MacDowell is a revelation as this self-deluding Southern flower. A top model whose inauspicious film debut as Jane in Greystoke (1984) necessitated having her dialogue dubbed by Glenn Close, MacDowell seemed destined (check her out in St. Elmo’s Fire) to decorate films, not to deepen them. Out goes that theory. From her first moment, MacDowell commands attention and richly rewards it with a tartly amusing and affecting performance that first bewitches and then breaks your heart.
Soderbergh’s exceptionally well-chosen cast never strikes a false note. Gallagher (High Spirits, Dreamchild) brings remarkable shading and redeeming wit to what could have been the predictable role of the rat husband. As the caustic Cynthia, film newcomer San Giacomo is a flinty, funny knockout. She invests this hell’s belle with enough come-on carnality to singe the screen.
It is left to Spader’s Graham to make the others face the truth about one another and themselves. Dressed in black with a mood to match, he comes to town with little more than a collection of videotapes he’s made over nine years of women’s confessing intimate sexual secrets. “I’m impotent,” he tells Ann. “I can’t get an erection in the presence of another person.” Ann is intrigued; Cynthia is challenged. There’s cruelty in the sly, insinuating way Graham persuades both women to sit for his video camera. Formerly a compulsive liar, now filled with self-disgust, Graham has cut himself off from real life; only watching the tapes can arouse him. In a role of daunting demands, Spader amazes. His wrenching, wounded interpretation is definite Oscar bait.
Soderbergh’s footing isn’t always sure in the film’s final scenes, when he tries to tie up loose ends; he allows his film to strike up a glancing acquaintance with the conventional. But why nit-pick over an ardent, adult film that so incisively exposes the barriers we set up to avoid making contact? Soderbergh, a professed movie obsessive, has constructed a loosely autobiographical film in which the key moments occur when a camera clicks off. Savor his triumph. One of the many pleasures provided is the intoxicating kick of being in on the discovery of a major talent.