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?