The routine yet intimate act of self-pleasure is the cinematic throughline of Ben Hozie’s PVT Chat, an implicitly erotic and often saccharine exploration of sexual connections as experienced through webcam videos and built-in laptop microphones. Hozie, who also serves as the frontman of the New York City art rock band BODEGA, ushered PVT Chat from initial development to final cut, carrying out simultaneous duties as writer, director, cinematographer and editor. The one-man-crew technique might initially suggest a lo-fi aesthetic sensibility, but in practice allows for true carnal comfort to swell between the lead actors without sacrificing artfully shot visuals and an air of sleek production value.
The viewer first meets Jack (Peter Vack) in his barren, ill-kept two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, complete with the essential late-20s bachelor starter pack: Mattress sans-boxspring haphazardly placed in the middle of his bedroom, scurvy-inviting meals of instant ramen his sole dietary staple. And all that on top of plans to beta test a new (and totally unnecessary) app which aims to stream thoughts from one person’s brain to another. While this initial portrait is far from flattering, Jack’s many redeeming qualities gradually reveal themselves, manifested in befriending a pair of freelance house painters, generously offering to smoke out a disgruntled neighbor and, hey, at least he doesn’t use all-in-one body lotion as his personal lubricant. Paired with the revelation that his best friend and roommate recently died in their shared apartment, Jack’s depressing room set-up and nutritional deficits mostly excuse themselves.
As he scrolls through an assortment of available cam girls through a faux-OnlyFans website, Jack stumbles on the profile of Scarlet (Julia Fox), a dominatrix who dons a skin-tight leather catsuit and addresses her dedicated patrons exclusively as “slaves.” Jack quickly becomes infatuated with Scarlet, not through engaging in submissive sex acts (Scarlet has a knack for virtually extinguishing lit cigarettes on wet tongues), but through fleeting, everyday conversations that slowly blossom between the two. Jack’s lust borders on obsession when he spots Scarlet in a Chinatown convenience store one evening, challenging her claim that she resides in San Francisco.
The electrifying chemistry between Vack and Fox is an impressive feat, as the majority of their interactions in the film occur through laptop screens. While the role no doubt plays with Fox’s IRL sex symbol persona, it would be negligent (and downright sexist) to ignore the well-acted subtleties of Scarlet’s wider interactions outside of online sex work. Deli runs with the company of a friend alongside arguments with her live-in boyfriend demonstrate Scarlet’s ironically meek underbelly.
While PVT Chat has all the ingredients necessary to entertain any man’s sleaziest desires, the film shows a vested interest in transposing sexual gender roles and forgoing vapid misconceptions about sex work and agency. Hozie intentionally fixes his camera on Jack’s naked body—exposing every visible crevice in unabashed detail—emblematic of his current state of emotional vulnerability. Conversely, Scarlet’s unflinching gaze and fully-clothed silhouette make the statement crystal clear about the power she wields over her clients—and the boundaries she must fortify in order to maintain that distinction. Eventually, Scarlet finds that she enjoys the act of getting to know Jack outside of their transactional cam sex. As she sheds her domineering persona, her clothes soon follow.
While many might solely recognize Fox from her lingerie-clad scenes in the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems, it’s vital to note that the actress’ partial nudity (and Vack’s full-frontal, for that matter) is primarily employed to broaden societal ideas that simultaneously malign human expressions of sexuality while praising static images of “tasteful” reclined nudes. There is an undeniable and long-standing connection between art and sex work. Our country’s completely bleak work culture coupled with a laughable minimum wage uniquely positions sex work (particularly of the virtual persuasion) as an alluring avenue for starving artists to make a living. When Scarlet sheepishly confesses to Jack that her true passion lies in painting, she elaborates that her camming hustle was “never supposed to be a full-time thing. It just happened.”
PVT Chat is squarely pro-sex worker, but doesn’t shy from portraying many of the exhausting realities of the profession. While Jack is ostensibly doing good by directly supporting independent sex workers and rejecting the impersonal avenue of mass-produced porn, the inherent face-to-face nature of camming allows him to project his loneliness onto these women—emboldening him to cross boundaries in the process. What he doesn’t understand is that these women (including Scarlet) are not replacements for companionship, rather individuals who provide a valuable service. If it’s considered uncouth to covertly follow your hot accountant through eerily barren streets, why on Earth would you act any differently towards a sex worker?
“As humans, all our relationships are exploitative,” Jack casually explains to Scarlet over video chat one evening. He argues that even the relationship between parent and child is transactional, our actions in every relationship always secretly self-serving. This sentiment—combined with a sweetly idealistic ending—might inadvertently validate certain creepy men’s deluded fantasies of domestic bliss with their preferred online cam model. However the stylistic intentions of PVT Chat welcome not only a rigorous examination of our own personal proclivities, but a sincere respect for the boundaries inherent in the sexual inclinations of others.
Director: Ben Hozie
Writer: Ben Hozie
Stars: Julia Fox, Peter Vack, Buddy Duress, Keith Poulson
Release Date: February 5, 2021 (DarkStar Pictures)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.