I first saw Steven Soderberg's Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989, soon after it won the Palme D'Or at Cannes. I watched it with my boyfriend in a cinema in Paris. We were 18 and in love. Being on holiday in the most romantic city I knew, I felt a certain degree of pressure to match up to it.
I wanted our own acts of love to emulate 'La Cite d'amour'. I thought we should try to embody the sensual beauty of the Parisian streets, grey and green in the sunlight, to become the pink blush of the rose in our glasses, amidst the gaudy neon signs of Pigalle. But I knew we never would. So I was glad to escape from this slight feeling of inadequacy, into the comforting darkness of the cinema, together but separate from my lover.
Sex, Lies and Videotape is a love song to sexual repression. It's a film about the crap we talk to our partner, when we should be discussing our love life. It tells us how sometimes it takes a 'fucked up' individual (James Spader), wanking to videos he has made of women talking, to bring out the lifeblood and sexuality of a lonely woman (Andi McDowell). The film resonated with me so strongly, that I thought I might orgasm out of sheer relief. 'Yes, oh YES!' I wanted to scream, 'That's how I FEEL!'. Instead I just squirmed in my seat.
I must have sensed, even then, that there was something incredibly kinky about the main premise of Sex, Lies and Videotape. But I was so young, my repression so complete, that this feeling was mainly subconscious. It took me a long time for it to fully dawn on me just how horny I find it, the idea of a man videoing women talking about sex. The fact that some of those women masturbate as they do so just adds to the horniness. It is so clinical, so distant, so removed from the actual, carnal act of fucking. And distance, as Lacan and I know, is hot.
But at the time I thought I was simply identifying with another woman's sexual inhibitions. I'd never heard of Andi McDowell the actress-this was before she found fame (or infamy?) in classics such as Groundhog Day and Green Card. To me she was just an uptight woman who couldn't reach orgasm, who could barely finish a ... sentence. I saw myself so clearly in her character. It felt as if she was forgiving me for some unspoken sin I'd committed long ago.
I don't remember what happened after the lights went up. I expect, knowing the 18 year-old me, that I kept quiet about my views on the film, so partially formed they were, so closely they related to my secret, innermost 'self'. We probably went back to our hotel room and had sex, in that awkward, respectful, sorrowful way we used to do. I know one thing for sure. I most certainly didn't come.
Twenty years on, Sex Lies and Videotape remains amongst my favourite films. Now I fully appreciate both its beautifully perverted core and its psychological depth. I'm happy to say I'm no longer that girl who identified so strongly with McDowell's character. As you are aware, dear reader, I'm not scared to talk about sex anymore. And these days when I fuck, I tend to make sure I come, and come hard.
But nobody completely sheds their adolescent skin. I remain repressed in some important and deep-seated ways. I am able to enjoy sexual release, but it's often with men who are practically strangers to me that I feel most free. I still find it difficult to talk about sex and to lose myself in sex with someone I love. So Sex, Lies and Videotape still speaks to me like a friend who knows me intimately, maybe even better than I know myself. I will always love it for that.
It is also recently that I have come to appreciate the real significance of the scene when McDowell takes the camera and turns it on Spader, transforming the male gaze of the film into a female one. If ever we do meet, and the conversation turns to sex, which it most certainly will, I suggest you check all my gadgets first before you open your mouth, to see if I have pressed 'record'.