Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) – Ace Mini-Review

Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Starring: Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Peter Gallagher
Written & Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
U.S.A., 1989

How good is this movie?

A strange little movie with some unusually frank discussions about sex. I don’t really get it, but it is interesting to watch, and I enjoy many parts of it.

How ace is this movie?

Ann explains in the film’s opening that she is not into sex and doesn’t see why people make such a big fuss about it. This flags her as potentially ace from the very beginning. She does not initially understand her therapist’s masturbation question, and when she does, she is embarrassed, saying it seems like a dumb thing to do. She associates marriage with security, rather than love or desire, and of late she does not like her husband touching her or want to have sex with him.

Graham, as he tells Ann in an early scene, is unable to get an erection in the presence of another person. While his lack is in ability rather than desire, he doesn’t seem bothered by it. He is able to meet his sexual needs on his own with his collection of videotapes. The making of these tapes involves interacting sexually with women, but the focus is on talking and listening – listening to their needs and their desires. Although he masturbates to the women, he does not touch them or push them to do anything they don’t want to.

The oddness of both these characters is contrasted to the more conventionally sexual John and Cynthia. John, who sees women as sexual objects, is unequivocally condemned for his toxic masculinity. He could understand Graham’s video project if Graham had sex with the women, but the idea of just talking to them is one he cannot wrap his head around. Cynthia, the “extrovert”, at first sees herself as more empowered and liberated than the uptight Ann. However, through her conversations with Graham she comes to see that she, too, is trapped by patriarchal norms, and that her relationship with John is unhealthy.

Despite all this, neither Ann nor Graham can be wholeheartedly claimed as asexual. In both cases, it is hinted that their sexual apathy has an underlying cause: Ann is married to a man who ignores her needs; Graham has a psychological disorder. Whether they are able to overcome these difficulties in their relationship with each other, and whether that leads them to embrace normative heterosexuality, is left ambiguous. When Graham stops the camera after their fateful recording session, it is hinted that they may have sex. But when we see them later they are still fully clothed, and when John says, “I know you didn’t fuck him”, Ann gives him a look which says he is right. On the other hand, Graham’s destruction of his videotapes implies that he doesn’t need them any more, and in the film’s final shot he and Ann certainly act like a conventional heterosexual couple.

Ultimately, the film cannot be called either ace-friendly or ace-hostile. It does, however, contain some refreshingly open and honest discussions of sexuality and acknowledges, in a way few movies do, that people are different and have different sexual needs.

3 Stars; 3 Aces

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