Screens are more prevalent in our lives than ever – we’re stimulated by billboards, ordering stations, televisions, phones. They have become windows of observation to which we view our lives – a specific sense of our lives, designed and streamlined to seduce us into buying, selling, doomscrolling. This allure of the manufactured life within the screen can even threaten to consume us, sealing us off from the rest of the world through an obsession with a life that seems perfectly designed for us online, all it takes is a slip and we are under the spell of the screen. Ben Hozie executes this slip and explores the effects of the screen’s spell in PVT Chat, posing questions around parasocial relationships, virtual intimacy and the fine line between artifice and truth.
We are introduced to Jack (Peter Vack), the stereotypical bachelor; he eats ramen noodles for dinner, and his bed consists of a mattress on the floor. It’s evident that Jack’s self-care goes little beyond ensuring he doesn’t die from starvation or thirst. His financial situation is constantly fluctuating, due to his ‘occupation’ as an online Blackjack gambler – a jab from his landlord over a rent payment three weeks late informs us of the knifepoint he lives on, a click away from comfort or ruin through the danger of online betting as a sole source of income. The bulk of Jack’s winnings divided between redistributing back into the gambling pool and spending his money on cam girls. Jack’s characterization is one of a man driven by excess – gambling significant winnings just to lose them, cycling through camgirls attempting to get the specific stimulation he craves. It’s clear that given Jack has some form of addiction to the online world already, placing his employment and his interactions predominantly through his laptop screen. Emotionally detached from the real world, he instead pours his emotion into private sessions – attempting to have personal conversations with some of the workers who, rightly so, have no desire to reveal their own personal lives to Jack. We learn Jack has a penchant for one specific cam girl, Sc.rlett (Julia Fox).
With Scarlett, we see Jack put on his own persona – ‘Rich App Developer’, going as far as to dress the part, with a blazer and hat to complete the look. His infatuation with Scarlett is clear through the contrast between their interactions and his real-world interactions – lively and open virtually, closed-off and detached in reality. What begins as a typical Dom/Slave relationship is soon distorted as Jack begins to push Scarlett slowly but invasively to open up – it’s clear that Jack ultimately seeks emotional stimulation, with this sexual outlet being a temporary reprieve. Jack seems to value virtual intimacy over personal connections, as the lines between client/worker begin to blur, as the pair have more honest and open conversations – the chemistry between Fox and Vack is importantly balanced between empathetic connection and slight discomfort; it’s clear Scarlett is wary against opening up to Jack, but at the same time has a desire to do so in general. The irony of these honest and personal conversations is the paradoxical nature of honesty between personas – just as Jack only knows ‘Scarlett’, Scarlett only knows ‘Rich App Developer Jack’; both are disguises crafted to assist the pair. However, there’s an imbalance between the two that pervades throughout their relationship – Jack is aware that ‘Scarlett’ isn’t necessarily real, but Scarlett has no reason to suspect Jack’s own persona.
We get more of a glimpse into Scarlett’s life, clearly the strongest character within the film. She’s emotionally complex through her interactions with Jack and her boyfriend, Duke (Keith Poulson), and clearly takes pride in her work. The combination of Fox-as-actor and Scarlett-as-character create an immensely powerful presence that dominates every scene she’s in – even when Jack attempts to be dominant during a session, it feels artificial and uncomfortable, which concludes the power still truly lies with Scarlett, as she allows Jack to act in this role. Although Scarlett’s sex work is undermined by the two male figures in her life, Jack and Duke, the film does not side with them; it’s more a reveal of misogynistic responses to real work that takes effort and commitment, shown to be ironic given Jack’s dependency on Scarlett for emotional intimacy, and Duke’s own financial dependency, Scarlett being the provider for the pair.
A complex and provocative exploration of the ties, and people, that bind us, PVT Chat‘s strength lies in its script, interweaving strong yet clashing characterization that ultimately leads you thinking about the connection between the pair long after the two have departed from our screen, leaving us alone in our own gentle hue of blue light.
Dir: Ben Hozie
Scr: Ben Hozie
Cast: Julia Fox, Peter Vack, Keith Poulson
Prd: Oliver David
DoP: Ben Hozie
Music: Austin Brown
Country: United States
Runtime: 86 minutes
Vertigo Releasing presents PVT Chat on VOD 9th February.