There seems to have been a shift among adult companies in recent years towards more plot-based porn, with Wicked Pictures and New Sensations' raunched up rom com line leading the pack. Even major players who rarely gave the impression they gave a hoot about narrative justification for all the sex followed suit, one case in point being Patrick Collins' Elegant Angel. To be fair, Collins would occasionally dabble in more story-oriented fare (think of Axel Braun's 2003 scorcher COMPULSION for instance) but those were exceptions rather than the rule. The advent of "auteur" Graham Travis momentarily signaled a drastic change of course, unfortunately cut short by a managerial changing of the guard which saw them reverting back to their tried 'n true old ways.
Paying his dues as co-director (along with the memorably named "William H. Nutsack" !) of the highly enjoyable PORNSTAR SUPERHEROES, Travis was given free reign to manufacture movies that played as close to the mainstream as porn ever got. Remember that old pipe dream, dating all the way back to the "Porno Chic" period of the early '70s, when fornication filmmakers earnestly believed that their frowned upon "art" form would eventually merge with traditional Hollywood ? In spite of some people's best efforts (Chuck Vincent's crossover classics ROOMMATES and IN LOVE come to mind), it never really came about. Even the most fearless art-house offerings only turned explicit to depict sex as ugly and demeaning, rarely pleasurable, an exception being John Cameron Mitchell's glorious SHORTBUS. Did Travis succeed in rearing that rare beast : a "real" film that presents sex in a realistic manner, with all the joy and heartbreak the experience can contain ? Well, yes and no.
There's no doubting the director's good intentions on his justifiably much-lauded PORTRAIT OF A CALL GIRL, a commendably serious attempt to delve deeply into the troubled psyche of pretty prostitute Elle (short for Gabrielle but also French for "her", implying an intended universality) as she seeks out ever more degrading treatment from clients for sins committed in the past. More than a tad moralizing, this approach will prove to be the picture's Achilles' heel, even though Elle's big secret provides one hell of a kicker as the story winds down to its surprisingly low key resolution. Smoothing over the narrative's rough spots (more on that later) is a profoundly committed central performance by Jessie Andrews, merely 19 at the time and if she looked any more like one of the Olsen twins they could probably sue her for copyright infringement. Whether she'll turn out to be a proper adult "actress" to join the lineage of Georgina Spelvin, Veronica Hart and Jeanna Fine only time will tell but she's perfectly cast to play a complex character for whom she displays a degree of understanding. Trust me when I say that both player and personage are put through the wringer here, dramatically as well as sexually.
The sex is bound to separate the men from the boys as the encounters grow ever darker and more physically abusive. Since they are also really elaborate, they might alienate even the more ardent film fans forever clamoring for the merging of cinema and carnality. Contrary to Travis' easier to take follow-up WASTELAND, which stored elongated editions of its sex scenes on a bonus DVD with versions edited to fit the narrative flow part of the actual film, viewers have no such option here. In its defense, PORTRAIT really needs these wearying sexual set pieces to illustrate the lengths to which Elle will go and the depths to which she'll sink to achieve the punishment she craves. Watching petite porcelain Andrews tossed around as if she were a rag doll becomes an increasingly unpleasant experience however and not one I wish to repeat any time soon. Call me lily-livered but most of the sex, apart from an admittedly combustible scene she shares with super-hunk Manuel Ferrare (who somehow gets away with the rough treatment), appears completely unerotic to me. That said, I must admit to being almost constantly torn between repulsion and fascination, like I wanted to look away from the screen but just couldn't.
Treading through the moral morass, Travis is shrewd enough to add grace notes that make you re-evaluate what you have just witnessed, like Jessie and the two men who have just worked her over lost in blissful post-coital slumber. Elle is clearly made out to be both victim and perpetrator of her own humiliation. Whether this disturbs or otherwise affects the viewer is his (or her) own personal problem. To set off the spiritual "ugliness", Travis counters with as much formal beauty as he can muster, creating dreamlike vistas with flawless cinematography and mood-enhancing Arjun Sen music. The sun-drenched desert flashbacks that tease you with snippets from Elle's past are particularly breathtaking, as is her almost ritual preparation for the Ferrara sacrificial lamb sequence, donning latex gloves and stockings and being handed an ornate music box in a knowing nod to Bunuel's BELLE DE JOUR.
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