The UK is spending Valentine's weekend in lockdown, which explains the absence of standard-issue hearts-and-flowers fare from the weekly release schedule. Although it bills itself as "a romance about freedom, fantasy, death, friendship", I think you'd have to be especially comfortable around those you share a bubble with to snuggle up before the US indie Pvt Chat, concerning a snivelling sub nerd's growing obsession with an online dominatrix. From the outset, Ben Hozie's eyecatching if erratic curio demonstrates zero illusions about the single life and the transactional nature of our online relationships. Its focal point, a technophile New Yorker knowingly named Jack (Peter Vack), mostly exists in an oppressively boxy one-room apartment he can barely afford to stay in; he routinely dines on boil-in-the-bag noodles, and appears to own just the one item of clothing, a black suit he accordingly wears all the time. What little income he has derives from playing online blackjack, although we sense he's becoming inured to even that humdrum thrill. One escape route - release valve may be the better phrase - presents in the leather-clad Scarlet (Julia Fox, from Uncut Gems), whose cam shows go live after Jack's blown his savings for the night; he busts one way, and then in another. If that sounds crude, consider the pair's virtual meet-cute, which involves Jack inviting Scarlet to put a cigarette out on his tongue, and then agreeing to swallow the extinguished butt, all while furiously pleasuring himself. We soon see why he thinks she gets him; we can also see that he's paying through the nose for that privilege. We are, in short, an awful long way from An Affair to Remember.
The movie's virtues and vices are almost indistinguishable; it comes dangerously close to cancelling itself out. Shot on the hoof for a pitifully low budget, Pvt Chat has a sure, gutter-level feel for New York's grimier side, those small, dark, damp pockets that haven't yet been entirely gentrified. (Jack only leaves his cell to seek out nearby rub-and-tug parlours.) Yet it sticks us with a prize dork of a protagonist, who keeps threatening to bore us as he does Scarlet and her fellow camgirls; whose few friends are almost as socially maladroit as he is (Buddy Duress, the most irritating of all the irritating things in the Safdie brothers' Good Time, reprises his singularly one-note performance); who proves clueless when it comes to other people's boundaries. (On top of all that, Vack bears an unignorable resemblance to Ben Schwartz's peerlessly annoying Jean-Ralphio from Parks & Rec.) The film he moves through is often oddly funny: watching Jack threaten to appal his one non-virtual partner by logging on midway through a hook-up, or breaking into Scarlet's flat and hiding under her couch, Pvt Chat rather shapes up as Brian Rix's Camgirls. (I also chuckled at Jack's gushing appraisal of Scarlet's self-painted artwork: "I love the way you use the yellow.") A narrative flip around the halfway mark feels like Hozie acknowledging he may be approaching the limits of viewer patience with regard to his own lead character. Yet even that perspective shift is rough-edged, and you'll still need a certain tolerance for improvised scenester bluffing: I fear the Safdies, hailed by Film Twitter as the great white hopes of the American cinema, have opened the door to all manner of bad habits. Pvt Chat plays as substantially glibber and flatter than last year's Finnish BDSM pic Dogs Don't Wear Pants; and when it finally makes a break for openly Safdiesque crime territory, it occasions so much flailing. The movie is at its strongest whenever Hozie is simply scratching around the grimy perimeters of his chosen netherworld, like a mutt with fleas. Fully earning its 18 certificate (the IRL sex scenes go way beyond even last week's notably frank Passion Simple) and giving off a grungy, deadbeat vibe, here this 2021 release starts to resemble a sketchy successor to Abel Ferrara's once-notorious The Driller Killer - though I appreciate even that (somewhat flattering) comparison is bound to put off as many folk as it's going to draw in.
Pvt Chat streams from Friday via Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema.