Filmmaker hoping Cannes works magic for his 'sex' comedy

CANNES, France The strategy is as old as the Cannes Film Festival itself. You are a young American film director. You have made your first film, on a small budget, with actors working for scale. You are convinced, in all modesty, that your work is brilliant. But how can your film compete in the cutthroat American marketplace against all of those big blockbusters with their multimillion-dollar ad campaigns?

You submit your film to the Cannes festival. It is accepted. Your movie now is on the same footing with films starring Meryl Streep, Marcello Mastroianni and Woody Allen. The crowds stream into the vast auditorium, the lights go down, the film plays just as well as you dreamed it would play, and at the end, the audience rises up and gives you a standing ovation. You are 26 years old. Life may never be this good again.

That is what happened, more or less, to a young filmmaker from Baton Rouge, La., named Steven Soderbergh over the weekend. His first feature, named "sex, lies and videotapes," was selected as an official entry in the Cannes festival, and was a considerable hit with the Riviera audiences. With an exact control of tone unusual for a director so young, Soderbergh's film explores the interior lives of four characters in their early 30s who have been lying about sex for years, mostly to themselves. The film is an edgy, intense comedy - one of those well-written pieces we expect from someone like Woody Allen, who makes us laugh in painful recognition.

At the beginning of the story, a young, affluent housewife (Andie MacDowell) makes lists for her psychiatrist of all of the things wrong with society, of which the most bothersome is garbage disposal. The Freudian is, of course, quickly able to ascertain that her sex life is unsatisfactory, and, before long, we find out why: Her husband (Peter Gallagher) is having an affair with her sister (Laura San Giacomo), an artist.

Enter the husband's old college friend, a strange, introspective loner named Graham (James Spader). He is passing through town, is out of work and needs a place to stay for a few days. Graham's hobby is making videotapes of women, who confess their most intimate fears and fantasies to him. Before long, he and the best friend's wife are having a long lunch at which she claims to be uninterested in sex, and he recites the three words guaranteed to arouse any woman's curiosity about a man: "I am impotent."

The Spader character acts as a catalyst to dissolve all of the many layers of lies, deceptions and betrayals that separate the other three characters. Perhaps he even learns truths about himself.

The performance by Spader is the key to the film's success, and he throws us off-balance and gains our attention by deliberately toying with the other characters - telling them things almost sadistically, to see how they will respond. When he reveals his hobby - videotaping the confessions of women as an aid to his own fantasies - they are shocked, then fascinated.

Spader is not yet a star, but at 29, he is one of the most interesting young actors in Hollywood. Usually, he plays slick preppies (in "Wall Street," he was the ethical lawyer who Charlie Sheen tried to draw into his insider trading scheme). He was the loving but implacable drug dealer in "Less Than Zero," the vindictive rich kid in "Pretty in Pink," and both a suspected mad slasher and the slasher's twin brother in the overlooked, underrated "Jack's Back." His work in "sex, lies and videotape" is unlike anything he's done before, but it will gain him a lot of attention for a kind of langorous sexual ambiguity.

"I read Soderbergh's script, and I knew I wanted to play this role," Spader told me here, the morning after the film's first press screening. "A lot of agents weren't even showing the script to their clients, because they thought it was pornographic. My agent said, 'Boy, are you gonna love this script!' It's anything but pornographic.

"Whenever I have the choice - which is to say, whenever I don't have to take a job because I need the money - I go for the material above anything else.

"Soderbergh had never made a feature film before, but I was impressed by the way he wrote. He had done a lot of editing in his career, and you could see that in his writing - which dialogue would be shown, which dialogue would be heard, when conversations would be cut away from."

The story of how Soderbergh wrote the screenplay has been the talk of Hollywood since an in-progress version of "sex, lies and videotape" had its first U.S. screening last January at the U.S. Film and Video Festival in Park City, Utah. After doing a number of rock videos and a feature-length concert film for the rock group Yes, Soderbergh decided to leave his native Baton Rouge and go to Los Angeles "until something happened."

The trip took eight days, and he wrote the script on the road. "It wasn't an act of creation, it was an act of expulsion," he told a Cannes press conference after the screening. And the script essentially sold itself, by selling such hot young actors as Spader.

Soderbergh not only wrote and directed, but edited the film himself and worked on the soundtrack. And now he has scored a success at Cannes, where seven out of 13 French film critics polled by the daily festival newspaper gave his movie their highest rating (one thought it was "worthless," proving this was indeed an authentically French cross-section).

The rest of the strategy, for a film like this, is to return to America with your press clippings and any awards you can win, and open the film in the autumn as "the surprise hit of the Cannes Film Festival." That has worked in the recent past with such independent U.S. features as "Smithereens," "She's Gotta Have It" and "Stranger Than Paradise." Now Steven Soderbergh wouldn't be surprised if it's his turn. Neither would I.

© Roger Ebert, 16 May 1989, Chicago Sun-Times (Thank you, Susan!)