NEW YORK — THE grand prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival surprised just about everyone when it went to a low-budget comedy by a 26-year-old American named Steven Soderbergh, who hails from Louisiana and has never made a feature film before. Its unlikely title is ``sex, lies, and videotape,'' and it has now arrived in the United States, so American audiences can make up their own minds about it. The story begins with an unexpected visit to John and Ann, a young married couple. Graham, the guest, is an old friend whom John hasn't seen since college and Ann has never met. He turns out to be nice enough, but also a bit weird: He's kind of a loner, and his idea of having a ``meaningful relationship'' is to tape you with his video camera.
He's obsessed with taping young women, especially when they talk about - or act out - their sex lives. He gets more and more involved with Ann, and with her sister, Cynthia, who's anything but inhibited. Before long the emotions of these people are so tangled you doubt if they'll ever sort themselves out.
One thing ``sex, lies, and videotape'' has to offer is truth in advertising: It's definitely about sex, lies, and videotape, in roughly that order. The big question is whether this offbeat comedy deserved the grand prize, plus a best-actor award and an international critics prize, at the world's most celebrated film festival. And whether it's worth our attention - especially with its subject matter, which many will consider distasteful.
My own answers to these questions are very mixed. For about an hour, I enjoyed ``sex, lies, and videotape'' for its unexpected touches, which are plentiful. You never know what the characters are going to say next - especially the video freak, whose mind operates according to its own strange rules. In addition to these verbal surprises, the first half of the movie has terrific cinematic ideas. The camera settles down in unexpected places, or moves with a kind of hip choreography.
The trouble is: All this inventiveness simply vanishes from the movie after a while. During the last half-hour or so, the characters just sit and talk to each other while the camera just sits and photographs them in a boring shot/reverse-shot pattern. It's as if Mr. Soderbergh had lost interest in his own film.
And that would be understandable, since another problem with ``sex, lies, and videotape'' is that it's too calculated. You can almost hear Soderbergh and his associates cooking the movie up: Gee, nobody's combined these things before - this kind of sexuality, and this kind of character, and videotape, and sisters. It's more like a recipe than an artistic idea and in the end it seems - too trendy for comfort.
In sum, ``sex, lies, and videotape'' has clever moments. But they're not enough to carry the movie all the way to the end, and they don't make Steven Soderbergh more than a promising new talent who has yet to show us what he can really do.
The film is rated R. It contains a good deal of talk about sex, and it goes out of its way to be sleazy at times, although in visual terms it's fairly tame by current standards.