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, either talking to or 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.
There is a mumblecore feel to the film, owed to its DIY aesthetic, naturalistic dialogue and its nonchalant protagonists. Yet the dark and seedy New York on display here-augmented further by woozy POV shots – is more aligned to the Safdie Brothers’ early films. PVT Chat, directed by Ben Hozie, is 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; giving it all 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 this relatable loser who has completely surrendered to his vices. Beneath all the cringeworthy selfishness and mayhem of his perilousness life lies an unwavering shameless romantic.
Fox, equally as revealing, is less convincing. Admittedly, she excels in her dominatrix persona – looking the part in black skin-tight leather with a red backdrop filled with dildos and whips – is simultaneously gruelling as she is titillating, with a perfected authoritarian porn voice. Yet, out of uniform there is a certain monotone hollowness to her that comes across as insincere and vague.
Initially, we only get to see Scarlet through a lap top screen, until the film shifts to her perspective midway. Her life seems to involve sustaining her manipulating boyfriend Duke (Keith Poulson) and his amateur theatre production. Duke bizarrely convinces her into robbing Jack, who momentarily comes into money. A rather weak subplot which attempts to derail from a plausible character study into a small-scale heist movie.
Contradictory comparisons come mind with Steve McQueen’s 2011’s Shame. McQueen showcased sexuality through the prism of crippling addiction and humiliation. Michael Fassbinder’s Brandon also caught in a never-ending loop of giving into his sexual desires, but then is immediately repulsed by them. In PVT Chat there is a more light-hearted and ennobled approach in exploring one’s sexuality and depravities. When Jack eventually consummates his relationship with Scarlet, he finds that he is unable to perform unless she reassumes the dominating role. Scarlet is happy to oblige, as she also finds enjoyment in it.
By providing such unabashed portrayals of sexuality, Hozie helps remove constraining taboos around porn, addiction and loneliness. In these pandemic times with a prolonged time of being alone, it is only natural for people to seek satisfaction in their vices, to look for comfort and intimacy online.
PVT Chat is available to watch on digital platforms.