Sexuality and Set Design


There is a word for those who try to control their surroundings beyond the capacity of a single human being: neurotic. This adjective is commonly associated with psychoanalytic theory, and particularly Freud, who believed that neuroses developed as a result of the repression of psychosexual urges. I would suggest, not unreasonably, that it is this same word that lurks in both the latent and manifest content of Steven Soderbergh’s debut feature, SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE. There is no doubt in my mind that Freud would have fawned over this 1989 film. With a budget of less than $2 million, Soderbergh managed to create a powerful study of sexuality that masterfully utilizes dialogue and set design to convey the film’s central themes. In particular, I found that the director’s emphasis on recurring visual and aural motifs lends SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE much of its subliminal impact.

The film begins with a disembodied female voice expressing the fear of humans running out of places to store their garbage. We soon discover that this voice belongs to Ann, the sexually repressed and dissatisfied woman whom we soon discover is talking to her therapist. She goes on to reveal, “I started imagining, like, a garbage can that produces garbage and it doesn’t stop, it just keeps producing garbage and it just keeps overflowing, and you know, what would you do to stop something like that?” Ann’s concern over the garbage overflowing underscores her need to not only maintain order over her environment, but also keep what is dirty and disgusting hidden from sight. It is therefore no surprise when, in the same therapy session, she laughs off the idea of masturbating rather dismissively, as if she would never entertain the possibility of actively responding to her sexual desires. Interestingly enough, scenes of this dialogue are intercut with images of Graham, the stranger who is en route to stay with Ann and her husband, John. The question of “what would you do to stop something like that?” seems to be directly aimed at Graham, who will later confess to Ann that he is impotent–but was not always so.

This image of stuff spilling out of its container is a significant one that pervades the entire film in various forms. Soderbergh most notably evokes it through his placement of plants and flowers in nearly every setting. John’s office, which one might expect to be austerely decorated, in fact contains several plants with long leaves splayed over the ledge by his window. Of course, there is also that well-known scene in which John is waiting for Cynthia, his lover and Ann’s sister, while lying in bed naked, with a large potted plant covering his genitals. The repeated association of wild leaves that exceed their boundaries with John is clearly symbolic of his personality: he is consumed by sexual energy without regard for propriety. After all, he is sleeping with his wife’s sister. There is a primal and natural sense of sexuality about him that Ann so clearly lacks, which is likely why he is so attracted to her sister, who is Ann’s polar opposite.

Cynthia is depicted as a woman who embraces her sexuality without the restrictions Ann imposes on herself. She is free, sensual and confident, and her home reflects that. Her apartment is filled with paintings of flowers and actual plants. Even her bed sheets have flowers on them, as do the cushions on her chair. Cynthia’s paintings, which she has created, are full of life. They have no frames, so the vibrantly colored flowers appear to burst off the canvas and into the room itself. In contrast, the paintings of flowers adorning Ann’s walls are neatly framed and somewhat uninspired. They essentially mirror Ann’s personality: pretty, but safe and conventional. This feeling is further evoked by the multiple vases of cut flowers placed on various surfaces in Ann’s home. There are no leaves bursting from their vessels–everything is in its rightful place.

It is worth noting that Graham’s apartment has no flowers or plants at all, which gives the impression of sterility. His rooms are colorless and contain no paintings. Ironically, before he found a place to move into, Ann suggested that he look at rentals in the Garden District. The image of vitality that would inevitably accompany such a location seems incongruous with Graham’s repression and impotence.  When John shoots down the suggestion because of reported crime in the area, one cannot help but feel Soderbergh is showing a rare display of humor, albeit black.

The degree of control evident in Graham’s and Ann’s homes reinforce both characters’ repression and discomfort with their sexuality. The tamed flowers in Ann’s house are indicative of her compulsion to civilize what is natural and disorderly, while the absence of color and living things in Graham’s apartment represent his infertility. Soderbergh and his crew skillfully created living spaces that reflect the natures of their occupants, as is also seen in John’s office and Cynthia’s apartment. SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE is one of many great films that acknowledges set design as a subliminal, yet effective, component of a finished cinematic product.



Tessa Mediano is a Boston native with a BA in English from Boston College. She has volunteered for several local film festivals, including the Boston International Film Festival and the Independent Film Festival. In her free time, Tessa watches as many films as she can while still guaranteeing at least seven hours of sleep on weekdays, and considerably fewer hours on weekends.
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