Lovelace Review: American Horror Story
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Lovelace Review: American Horror Story

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | August 13, 2013 | Comments ()

Lovelace-review copy.jpg

Everything about pornography is a study in opposites: popular but hidden, sexual but deadening, liberating but oppressive, compelling but degrading. It’s this twisted cultural dichotomy that Lovelace seeks to explore by telling the life story of Linda Boreman, better known as Linda Lovelace, whose appearance in 1972’s Deep Throat made her one of the most famous women in the nascent scene of modern American porn. To achieve this, the film carries out a surprisingly effective bait and switch. The first half feels assembled half-heartedly from a set of instructions designed to replicate what we think of when we imagine modern movies set in the 1970s: wide lapels, some home movie montages, and plenty of pop hits you’ve heard in plenty of other movies (e.g., “Spirit in the Sky”). The story skips along somewhat briskly as Linda goes from single young girl to married woman to semi-reluctant porn star to instant celebrity. Halfway through, though, the narrative doubles back on itself, retracing its steps and filling in details that were omitted from the first draft. Muffled sounds thought to be the throes of passion are revealed to be groans of pain suffered during a beating; a happy honeymoon night turns into assault. The film drops the poppy soundtrack and any pretense at being a kind of sprightly adult dramedy, and it’s this left turn into mayhem and sadness that does the most to sell the filmmakers’ vision of pornography as a prison and Lovelace as its saddest and oldest convict.

Interestingly, though, the film is itself a study in duality, and of the tension between fact and fiction that always arises when you want to do anything that’s “based on a true story.” Lovelace is committed to a definite emotional truth, but the way it achieves that truth is something else. For instance, the film’s narrative has Linda (Amanda Seyfried) being forced to make Deep Throat to help her abusive, erratic husband, Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), get out of debt. Yet Linda’s entry into the industry was actually in a series of “loops”, short reels of sex acts that were shown at stag parties. Lovelace’s Linda manages to escape the movie world after Deep Throat, but the real Linda starred in the R-rated sequel Deep Throat II and a raunchy comedy called Linda Lovelace for President. The point here isn’t that Linda didn’t really suffer; rather, it’s that her suffering and her journey had more nuance, open ends, and shared culpability than the film seems interested in portraying.

It feels unfair and far too grand to say the filmmakers have anything like an “agenda” when it comes to their version of Linda’s life, though they do all have stories of sexual abuse or exploration on their résumés. Writer Andy Bellin co-wrote 2010’s Trust, about a young girl who befriends a boy online only to discover that the boy is in fact a man, a man who subsequently seduces and assaults her. Co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have worked together on several documentaries, including Paragraph 175, about the persecution of gays by the Nazis; The Celluloid Closet, about the changing portrayals of gays in film throughout the 20th century; and Common Thread: Stories From the Quilt, a film about the AIDS Memorial Quilt that earned them both an Oscar. Epstein also won an Academy Award for The Times of Harvey Milk. These are all stories with clear angles and established approaches, and while documentary can be just as prone to elisions of truth as fact-based fiction, it’s telling that Epstein and Friedman didn’t make a documentary about Linda that would find itself beholden to archival footage and verifiable statements. Instead, they’ve opted for a recast narrative that lets them use parts of Linda’s life to tell a truth about her, and us, that’s ultimately lacking for the way it relies on characterizations that sometimes feel a bit too easy, too pat, too compartmentalized. Would it have lessened the film, or our empathy for this version of Linda, to see her do something else — something worse — than be forced into making an adult film? Were the filmmakers afraid of losing us before they even had us? Is there only so much that they could ask of us?

Within the film’s limited world, though, there are some gripping moments. Seyfried is sad and compelling as Linda, and she toughens believably as the story unfolds. She’s got a remarkably tough job here — she has to be naive but not stupid, tough but overwhelmed — and she carries the film without missing a beat. Sarsgaard is fantastic, too; it’s a sign of just how good he is at putting himself into different characters that you find yourself hating him more and more as the film goes on, but not for any kind of off-screen vibe he brings to the role. He’s simply that good at inhabiting a drug-addled, abusive criminal. He and Seyfried play off each other the whole film, predator and prey, and it’s their toxic chemistry that makes their stories work well together.

Ultimately, though, Seyfried’s performance and skill wind up feeling a little like outliers, or like reflections of a larger and more moving truth that’s rendered in smaller pieces here. Lovelace remains its own study in opposites, constantly pulling away just when you think you’ve finally gotten close. Linda Susan Boreman lived a hard and complicated life that was briefly at the center of the American pop consciousness, and maybe any attempt to distill that into a 90-minute parable of strength and survival would be destined to come up short. Lovelace is often captivating in the moment, and its commitment to telling this version of the story is commendable. (Seriously.) Yet if the point of Linda’s life — if the thing she went through hell to earn — was, as the film suggests, the right to get out on her own and tell the truth about the things she’d seen and done, wouldn’t she, and we, have been better served by a film that didn’t quite feel so closed off to the complicated questions of responsibility and oppression? When the title cards before the closing credits say that Deep Throat grossed more than $600 million, a figure that would be in the billions if you adjusted for inflation, wouldn’t it be much more revealing to talk about how that long-disputed figure might have started and stopped with Linda herself? Put another way: Didn’t she deserve better? Don’t we?

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • St

    I did like this movie. Was not expect anything but it was surprisingly decent movie. And I don’t like Amanda Seyfried as actress. She looks the same in so many movies. Sometimes she can play different character. But most of the time she looks the same. So I was surprised how really good she was as Linda. Give her wig, ugly make-up and she looks much more interesting.

    Also Sharon Stone was amazing as her creepy mother. I even wanted more scenes with her. Robert Patrick as Linda’s father stunned me because he was clean shaving and looking much younger. Because in the past few years he always looks like some homeless man in his movies or tv appearances. With beard and cloth.

    Also surprisingly Adam Brody did not look like annoying himself and was interesting. And I really can’t stand him as an actor.

  • e jerry powell


    A little too complicated a story to be satisfactorily laid out in a feature-length film. But even allowing, say, a multi-episode, Ken Burns all-out dissection of the subject, there's still going to be a sense that a lot is missing and that much of the exploration or conclusions are excessively hyperbolic.

  • scaldingmay

    ".....complicated questions of responsibility and oppression"
    Nope sorry, victims are not responsible for their own oppression. Showing Linda Lovelace's victimization truthfully-that she was the victim of an abusive husband and was forced to perform the role of "empowered" sex object-isn't boring or cliched. The author seems to take for granted that women are allowed to talk about experiences of sexual violence, which couldn't be farther from the truth.
    Really, is the only supposed flaw of the film is that it showed how "sad" she was? I don't see the need to philosophize over a story that was pretty straight forward: a woman was taken advantage of by an abusive man and she tried to make sense of her life. Linda's life wasn't just a stroke of bad luck, it reveals a lot about the society around her.

  • George Tarleton

    I'm fairly certain that's not even close to what the author is saying. Cherry picking one part of one sentence and passing judgment on the writer based on that isn't entirely fair. I don't think at any point he is positing that her fate was her fault.

  • scaldingmay

    I don't think you understand what I'm saying. Let's look at this sentence then: "The point here isn’t that Linda didn’t really suffer; rather, it’s that
    her suffering and her journey had more nuance, open ends, and shared
    culpability than the film seems interested in portraying."

    I'm arguing that there's no such thing as "shared culpability" in situations of abuse. I don't care if Linda Lovelace did 100 porn films she wanted to do, and then was forced into doing one. That one hypothetical film isn't suddenly erased because she did other porn films willingly.

    I'm perfectly capable of understanding what the author was trying to say, I was responding to quotes directly from the review. As a woman, I think I should be allowed to comment on situations that directly relate to female oppression. You're lucky that as a man you can give the reviewer the benefit of the doubt; I'm not.

  • shoebox

    No one was saying you shouldn't be allowed to comment on female oppression.

    I'm a woman and I think you're misrepresenting the author's perspective.

    For the record, the one hypothetical pornographic film a woman is forced to do doesn't erase the hundred that she did willingly, either.

    Daniel was asking for more complexity in a film that deals with difficult issues. I don't think that is such an unreasonable sentiment.

  • scaldingmay

    No I understand what you mean, but when people usually ask for more "complexity" in a film about sexual violence, it's a tactic used to silence women's voices (to say that her suffering wasn't * that * bad, that there are women who "choose" to be in violent situations so everyone should quit complaining, etc).

    I don't know why you mentioned that you're a woman since it's no secret that plenty of women absorb the misogynist messages broadcasted to us daily.....I don't mean that as an insult to you personally, it's just a fact of living in a patriarchy.

  • Elle Fury

    Exactly, scaldingmay. The story of Linda Lovelace is a straightforward case of the abuse and sexual exploitation of a woman, which is a typical occurrence in the pornography industry. There is no "grey area" here. The line you quote from the article above is a more subtle example of victim blaming.

  • Bodhi

    If Lindsay Lohan had starred in this as first reported, it would have been tragic for other reasons entirely

  • St

    I was thinking about Lohan sometimes too. She would just be so bad in it. She would look and sound just like Lindsay Lohan. She would not look like Linda for a second. And there would be so many good actors around her. That would make her poor acting even more miserable.

    But she was not suppose to star in this one. Yeah, it was the one where Malin Akerman replaced her.

  • Maya

    Lindsay Lohan was actually supposed to star in another Lovelace biopic, called Inferno. Malin Akerman replaced her, with Matt Dillon as the abusive husband. I don't know if that's still happening though; if it is, it probably won't be out for awhile. Apparently it's even darker and more disturbing than this one, and seemingly more complex in the way that Daniel says Lovelace should have been.

  • Bodhi

    Oh, ok.

    I stand by my assertion, though. Any Linda Lovelace movie would be all the more tragic were LL to play Lovelace

  • Maya

    Yeah, I definitely agree with you on that.

  • Arran

    Watched this over the weekend. This review was about right. Seyfried is great, but the movie around her is just…okay.

  • Fredo

    I guess the question becomes, what else could you have expected?

    You don't make a movie about Linda Lovelace and not center it on Deep Throat and her abusive relationship with her husband. It's like making a movie about Muhammad Ali and not have it center and focus on his fight against the US government and the Rumble in the Jungle.

    It's the way of modern biopic filmmaking: focus on the big moment and wrap the person's life around it -- foreshadowing it, living it, dealing with it -- as if it was either preordained by some higher power or it's the culmination of their lives.

  • bastich

    I'm going to wait to watch this film until it broadcasts on the scrambled adult channel on basic cable at 3am. It'll be like reliving my childhood!

  • ,

    As part of that dichotomy, I have a vague memory of standing in a bookstore and leafing through the book Lovelace supposedly wrote as a righteous expose of the porn industry, and it was every bit as pornographic as the letters in Penthouse Forum.

    I thought that was an odd way to rail about the porn industry, if that was your aim, rather than to sell exploitative books.

  • BWeaves

    Wait? Her real name was Boreman? That's such a perfect porn name.

    It's like when I found out that Dita Von Teese's real name is Heather Sweet.

  • bella dance

    the movie is bullshit.
    i mean linda was a happy porn actress who didnt started to hate on the porn industry until she tried to get many other porn stars have done. just to distance themselves and be "legitimate".
    but hey people,we all know everyone will see this because of the main actresses boobs.we all know it.

  • George Tarleton

    Spoken like someone who knows absolutely nothing about the history behind the people and events. I'm pretty sure that a woman whose life consisted of pornography, prostitution, and coerced bestiality was never a "happy porn actress."

    Lovelace was a mess of a human being in a lot of ways, but most of it was born out of a pretty terrible history of abuse and addiction. To marginalize her like that is mind bogglingly ignorant and offensive.

  • TheEmpress

    I was hoping a review was coming for this soon. It's been a long time since I've seen a movie and then thought about it for days. I just can't get the misery of this woman's existence out of my mind, and there's one scene in particular when I had to turn away. Seyfried was better than expected and Sarsgaard is awesome at playing scumbags.

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