Emerging from the success of the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, Julia Fox takes up the role that she was born to play, that of a voluptuous online dominatrix, in Ben Hozie’s erotic drama film PVT Chat. An Italian-American actress, she effortlessly presents the sex worker Scarlet as a regular woman who capitalizes on her natural skills, revealing (or feigning) moments of tenderness along the way. Yet, even with Fox’s bountiful talent on full display, PVT Chat never fully rises to the occasion. Hozie’s script and Peter Vack’s portrayal of Scarlet’s most avid customer, Jack, lacks the necessary vigor to fully pull at the heart strings of viewers.
PVT Chat follow Jacks as he internet gambles by day and deal with his submissive sex slave addiction by night. During one of his more “intimate” web sessions, Jack falls heads over heels for the irresistible black leather femdom performer Scarlet. It isn’t long before his infatuation for the woman turns into a full-blown obsession that leads to an indecent proposal. If Jack can produce video or photo evidence of Scarlet living in New York City, then she must go on a trip with him to Paris, where they may tour the art galleries and make sweet love on the sandy beaches. After first denying Jack’s offer, Scarlet eventually agrees to the sophomoric jest, and the game is afoot. Meanwhile, being the spontaneous fool he is, Jack begins a friendship with his landlord’s house painter, William (Kevin Moccia), and the man’s grafter friend, Larry (Buddy Duress). The three misanthropes go all-in on a series of blackjack games, hoping to win 25 thousand dollars to pay the college tuition of William’s son. Aspiring young artist Emma (Nikki Belfiglio) also sprinkles the plot with her unrequited amorous overtures towards Jack, who dismisses the opportunity for a real, ordinary loving relationship with an “old shoe” (less attractive) girlfriend,
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If PVT Chat sounds like a movie with an array of ideas but no clear guiding vision, that’s a correct conclusion. In terms of aesthetics and cinematography, Hozie covers all the bases. Medium shots of Jack hunching over in front of a laptop, sometimes obscurely out of frame, give a strong sense of an emotionally disconnected individual. Likewise, Hozie intentionally shoots Jack from afar as he wanders the streets of New York City, signaling that the man’s online lifestyle leaves him a wandering shell of a man. A sense of malaise haunts the film’s editing as well. Hozie handles the scene transitions of chat mode and real-life mode seamlessly, as viewers get a clear indication of just how mundane and soulless the transition back and forth from a webcam device can be. However, when the interactive dialogue and overall sense of narrative come into play, all of this immersive goodwill unravels.
In PVT Chat, the half-baked attempts to create thematic through lines and symbolism prove to be the greatest flaws. Throughout the film, various pieces of erotic Shunga, European nudist paintings and self-drawn erotic artwork are on display. For the most part, they serve only as window dressing. One exception is a particular painting of a nude woman which reminds Jack of Scarlet, who seems to be genuinely flattered and touched by the comparison — evidence that she longs for someone to take an interest in her as a person just as desperately as her sex addict acquaintance.
Hozie provides subtle parallels and contrasts between Scarlet and Emma’s attempted dominance over men. The former excels by sizzling various males with a sprinkling of her cigarette ashes, whereas Emma artistically deluges a man overhead with sand yet cannot lure him to bed. The argument could be made that Hozie employs these visual cues to instill the belief that sadomasochism is a form of art in itself, but the sexual acts on display come off as too crude and raw to be considered as such. The other issue is that Emma’s moments in PVT Chat are too brief, as Hozie does not enable the audience to fully contemplate any similarities or differences between these two women. Finally, while the blackjack subplot of Jack, William and Larry leads to some wacky hijinks, these moments often feel disconnected from the primary narrative. The story of the three gentlemen could have been a stand-alone film.
While the cast of PVT Chat is well rounded, stand out moments are few and far between. Some of the failings are the result of Hozie’s style over substance script writing, and not all of the actors have the same level of charisma as Fox, who wears her intimidating black leather outfit with ease, almost like a second skin. Scarlet twirls her hair and playfully caresses the bottom half of her skin tight outfit, only to start yelling for Jack to eat her cigarette butt; no one would ever mistake her for dolled-up eye candy. Scarlet’s soft and whispering voice leaves Jack — and, by extension, the audience — in a precarious state of never quite knowing what she is honestly thinking.
Vack’s performance as Jack is a mixed bag and, the weaker half of the kinky dynamic duo. The actor’s best moments occur when the script allows him to be off-the-rails spontaneous. This includes the scenes in which Jack is engrossed in online gambling with his friends or when he reverses the dominatrix rules on Scarlet and starts bossing her around for a change. But when Jack starts to interact with Scarlet on a more personal level, and the situation demands more gravitas than that of just another quirky hipster, Vack’s performance derails off course.
In the third act, PVT Chat derails entirely. Hozie attempts to make a character perspective switch, similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), without laying the appropriate narrative groundwork. While Scarlet’s motivations allow the twist to occur, it’s so cliché and run of the mill. Hozie would have been better off leaving her a mysterious siren of the night.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.