Jack (Peter Vack) lives a hand-to-mouth existence in his makeshift New York rental, spending all his precarious earnings from online gambling on cam girls. One in particular, dominatrix Scarlet (Julia Fox), who he develops an insatiable infatuation with; expending a fortune being degraded by her. Yet, randomly his fantasy materialises when he spots her in the street- she is supposedly broadcasting from San Francisco – and starts to stalk her.
The film’s mumblecore heart is owed to its DIY aesthetic, naturalistic dialogue and nonchalant protagonists. However, the dark and seedy New York on display here-augmented further by woozy POV shots – is more aligned to the Safdie Brothers’ early films. Also starring a stalwart of theirs, Buddie Durress, in a similar sleazy role, and of course Fox’s breakout role in Uncut Gems.
Vack is faultless as Jack in a very exposing role. There are full-frontal masturbation scenes peppered throughout, that never feel out-of-place or shocking but more a natural sketching of a relatable loser who has completely surrendered to his vices. Beneath all the cringeworthy selfishness and mayhem of his perilous life lies an unwavering shameless romantic.
Fox is equally revealing, excelling in her dominatrix persona. Looking the part in black skin-tight leather with a red backdrop filled with dildos and whips, she is simultaneously gruelling as she is titillating, with a perfected authoritarian porn voice. Out of uniform she is less convincing, it becomes a monotone performance with very little character substance.
Initially, we only see Scarlet through a lap top screen, until the film shifts to her perspective midway. A life involved mainly to sustain manipulating boyfriend Duke (Keith Poulson) and his amateur theatre production. Duke introduces a rather weak subplot as he coaxes Scarlet into robbing Jack, as he momentarily comes into money. A failed attempt to derail a fresh character study into a feeble small-scale heist movie.
Contradictory comparisons come to mind with Steve McQueen’s 2011’s Shame. McQueen showcased sexuality through the prism of crippling addiction and humiliation. In PVT Chat the approach is a more light-hearted and ennobled, seeking more to explore one’s sexuality and depravity, rather than judge. When Jack eventually consummates his relationship with Scarlet, he finds that he is unable to perform unless she resumes her dominatrix role. Scarlet is happy to oblige, whilst also finding enjoyment in it.
By providing such unabashed portrayals of sexuality, director Ben Hozie helps remove constraining taboos around porn, addiction and loneliness. PVT Chat is perhaps a precussor for these pandemic times where the prolonged periods of being alone has the direct effect of people seeking satisfaction, comfort and intimacy online. There is no shame in that.
PVT Chat is available to watch on digital platforms.