Review: Portrait of a Call Girl

Jan 24, 2012 • Culture, Film, porn, Reviews

Portrait of a Call Girl

Best director, best actress, best feature — these are the awards the porn feature Portrait of a Call Girl scored at the AVNs last week. We got curious, so we decided to take a look at how the legal aspect of the sex industry understood its marginalized twin.

We had faith in the film. Gram Ponante had written a review on Fleshbot that said Portrait had achieved for the studio Elegant Angel what every porn company hopes for: a skin flick that could pass for mainstream were it not for all the sex in it.

He’s not wrong when he says that Portrait is the most “thoughtfully acted, beautifully shot, and sparsely, elegantly orchestrated” porn flick out there. It is right up there with the original Emmanuelle. It even pays passing tribute to Buñuel’s Belle du Jour and uses voice overs reminiscent of Gia (“A life is like a book. A book is like a box. A box has six sides. Inside and outside, so, how do you get to what’s inside? How do you get what’s inside, out? Once upon a time, there lived a very pretty girl, who lived in a beautiful box, and everybody loved her.”).

The film has serious problems, however, the biggest of which are all the tired cliches that relate to sex workers. Elle, played by Jessie Andrews, comes from a broken home complete with an abusive stepfather. She hates herself so much, she destroys a relationship with a man who genuinely loves her and runs off to the city to become an escort. From that moment on, the variety of sex acts in which she engages place her in positions of intensifying humiliation, suggesting that sex work, for her, is nothing but a catalyst for self-hatred and self-destruction. The protagonist is the epitome of the girl Who Must Be Saved.

And then after a six man bukkake session, one of the johns asks her out on a date. Elle is as surprised that anyone would want her as she is that she is getting paid more money than was previously agreed (come on). She hasn’t even gone out on the date when she tells the man who set her up with the bukkake gig that she’s not interested in another engagement. The final scenes make it seem as though she’s going to quit for good, though at the end we’re not quite sure — a small step forward for reality, three steps back for character development.

Then there are the little things that don’t jive. She’s too explicit when talking about the price of sex. No “roses,” straight up cash. She rarely takes her money first. And her clients are attractive, if not outright gorgeous.

Then you have the therapy sessions. Elle wants to destroy herself, but she confides to her therapist that she loves what she does. Not because it’s destructive. Not because it gives her a thrill to escape as someone else’s fantasy. Not because she is being paid more for one hour than most people are paid in a week. No, she loves the sex itself. She doesn’t fake it ever! Immediately afterward, she occasionally masturbates thinking about it. It’s not work regardless of her careful accounting of every deposit.

That’s nitpicking. Far, far more egregious is the fact that none of the sex scenes include condoms. We know how the porn industry feels about condoms. We get it. And we also know that some girlfriend experience situations work that way, but to see it in every scene featuring penetration severely sabotages the suspension of disbelief. Sex work simply doesn’t work that way most of the time.

Don’t get us wrong — we liked the editing. We liked the score. We liked the way the scenes floated alongside one another. Portrait feels almost like a blog that you stumble on while you’re surfing the web at work, which gives you little peeks into a person’s life. Not always honest. Not always in order. Not always consistent. Aside from the issues we mentioned, the film comes off as real. It’s human.

Andrews epitomizes this humanity — which may be why her costars feel so desperately out of place. She has the sort of body you’d see on the girl next door, if the girl living next door didn’t believe in Brazilians. There is nothing particularly sexy about her body until she decides to make it sexy and then, quite suddenly, she unfolds before the viewer like some kind of iconic beauty. It doesn’t happen during the sex scenes, mind you. In them she is blotchy, sweaty, her makeup smeared all over her face. Sometimes, she’s outright ugly — ugly in the way we civilians are ugly when we have sex. Masterfully, one of her fake unlashes come partially unglued during the threesome scene and completely falls off during the bukkake scene, ending up on her left cheek right below her eye. You can’t easily fake that level of human.

The isolation, too, is very real. We don’t see a lot of waiting in the ivory tower, to nod to Scarlot Harlot, but we do feel the loneliness. The scene where Elle goes to the movie theater alone perfectly captures this and the music only heightens it. It’s crushing. How anyone could masturbate to this movie is slightly beyond us.

We respect the restraint director and writer Graham Travis exercised in the ending. Elle doesn’t end up staying with the guy who asked her out on a date. She doesn’t end up with the man she wronged. That’s something. If it didn’t perpetuate so many stereotypes about prostitution, we’d be tempted to thank the studio for keeping it real — ish. But its problems are a little too big to ignore.