You can find, quite literally, anything you want on the internet these days; whether you want to overhaul your wardrobe with a big shopping spree, learn new skills through video tutorials, or invest in crypto-currencies and dismantle the stock exchange. You can even find dominatrix cam-girls who will force you to lick their boots and eat cigarette ash, if that’s your thing. The sex worker industry, though still plagued by taboo and stigma, is certainly going through something of a turning of the tide in many ways, with subscription services like OnlyFans emerging recently and bringing this world to a much larger audience. Camgirls have also featured in recent feature films Cam (Daniel Goldhaber) and Jezebel (Numa Perrier, 2019), as well as Sam Levinson’s TV show Euphoria (HBO). One thing is for sure, PVT Chat doesn’t give a fuck about taboos, and holds nothing back in its depiction of online sex workers and their customers.
Our peculiar protagonist on this journey, Jack (Peter Vack), is introduced to us in rather graphic fashion as we see him masturbating – and when I say we see it, I mean we see it…all. Whilst this is undeniably an uncomfortable opener to the film, it certainly sets the tone for what is to come and highlights the director’s determination to shock the audience. Jack is a man of nocturnal habits, and he sticks to these habits religiously – every night, he gambles whatever money he has left on internet blackjack games, and then spends his winnings on fulfilling his sexual desires (when he really should be paying his rent), be it visits to “special” massage parlours, or private chats with his favourite camgirl, Scarlet (Julia Fox). Over the course of the film, Jack and Scarlet’s interactions become more and more frequent and familiar, as Jack’s infatuation grows deeper and their unorthodox relationship becomes increasingly complicated.
As the title card rolls, we are told that PVT Chat is “a romance about freedom, fantasy, death, friendship”, which may surprise viewers. I have to admit, it certainly promised more than I expected from a film which I assumed was going to be nothing more than a hyper-sexualised drama with little in the way of depth and incisiveness. I was wrong. What starts as a simple business transaction between strangers separated by a webcam, blossoms into something far more meaningful as both Jack and Scarlet ditch the dirty talk and instead begin to explore one another’s lives away from the computer; their interests, their ambitions and all the tiny intricacies which make up their identities. But is Jack’s dream woman really falling for him, or is he simply falling for her seductive games?
The beauty of this mystery lies in the alluring performance from Julia Fox. Following her breakout role in the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, it was always going to be difficult for Fox to shake the tag of sexy supporting actress. However, rather than try to subvert this perception, she embraces her eroticism and the image she has cultivated to maximum effect here. In fact, it is absolutely essential that Julia Fox leans on these elements of her on-screen persona, in order to fulfil the role of the beguiling dominatrix and keep the audience guessing as to her true feelings. To add further authenticity to the performance, it’s worth noting that Fox is quoted in an interview from last year as having previously had experience as a dominatrix before she got into acting – and it shows.
It’s easy to empathise with Jack as we see his addiction to Scarlet get out of control, simply down to the fact that Fox plays this femme-fatale role with absolute precision at every turn, saying just what Jack wants to hear time and time again. Peter Vack, too, must receive credit for his bold approach to the role of Jack. This is the kind of character that cannot be easy to play; from full frontal masturbation, to performing humiliating submissive demands and of course the recurring, awkwardly obsessive, at times creepy nature which underpins his character. If anything, Vack seems to be really enjoying himself here, and he carries the film with this unusual, endearing charm which really enables the character of Jack to cleverly blur the lines between being someone we would normally, instinctively feel a degree of sour judgement towards, but who we instead are compelled to root for.
Again, this is evidence that writer and director Ben Hozie is not looking to vilify sex workers, or their customers, and instead approach this story as the messed-up romantic fantasy it is billed as. Regardless of the character’s sexual behaviours or how they earn their money, at the heart of this is two human beings doing what they want to do in their personal space, and there is definitely a high level of care in representing these people without casting aspersions.
I mentioned the Safdie brothers earlier, and I want to loop back to them now, because it’s hard not to notice their DNA running through this film. Not only do we have Julia Fox, but character actor Buddy Duress also pops up with a fantastic bit-part support role, having also appeared in Good Time for the Safdie boys. But the similarities to the Safdie style are deeper-rooted than mere casting crossovers. The trademark dialogue structure, best described as “organised chaos” is in full force here as characters talk over one another and aggressively, passionately burst into rambling monologues. The urban thriller vibe, complete with handheld, shaky cam is also put to good use, albeit with less of the vivid lighting we have come to expect from the Safdies – instead Hozie adopts a much more dingy aesthetic throughout the film, perfectly befitting the gritty, grimy context of the narrative. This is shrewdly juxtaposed with some rather slick post-production design styles to bring to life the chat-room conversations with sharp blue and pink graphics to give those moments real energy. And of course, with a story of a problematic protagonist indulging in dubious activities and constantly battling to stay one step ahead, it’s easy to tar Jack with the same brush as Adam Sandler’s Howie Ratner and Robert Pattinson’s Connie Nikas.
It’s probably not fair to judge a production like this against the merits of a more established set of filmmakers, but it’s difficult not to, when the influences are so abundantly clear, and sadly PVT Chat will suffer for these comparisons as it definitely lags behind on a technical level despite its best efforts. Narratively too, this film doesn’t quite have the depth to fully engage the viewer, with the admirable and thought-provoking messages at its core only able to carry it so far. Ultimately, PVT Chat is a modern day, twisted fairytale of boy-meets-girl intent on delivering a happy ending, and one which offers plenty in the way of unadulterated, prurient thrills, but which finds its limitations in the scope of its story and the confines of its budget. Nevertheless, I would argue that this is a case of a film being about as good as it would ever have the right to be, and at 85 minutes, it couldn’t hurt to give it a try anyway.
PVT CHAT in Theatres February 5, 2021 and On Demand & Digital on February 9, 2021.