Still from PVT Chat (2020)

10 raw and real movies about sex work

Ninja Thyberg’s ‘Pleasure’ is the latest in a line of great cinema about the complicated industry.

by Rafa Sales Ross
17 June 2022, 2:32pm

Still from PVT Chat (2020)

A young, tanned Richard Gere as the American Gigolo. Jane Fonda rocking a shaggy bob and a glimmering turtleneck in Klute. Pretty Woman-era Julia Roberts in thigh-high PVC boots. Hollywood icons are often forged in the fire of portraying sex workers on-screen, and it takes a certain kind of actor to pull off the charm of a streetwise hustler without coming off corny, or badly mischaracterising the profession.

In Ninja Thyberg’s gritty new MUBI drama Pleasure, newcomer actor Sofia Kappel joins the ranks of the successful with her portrayal of Bella, an ambitious Swedish performer who lands in LA raring to make waves in the American porn industry, but finds herself up against the dire reality of the frequently inhospitable business. If Pleasure has opened up your appetite for cinematic portrayals of sex work that do away with the sugarcoating, allow us to extend your watchlist with these ten movie recommendations.

1. House of Tolerance (2011)

In 1899, the so-called “twilight of the new century”, the girls of a prestigious Parisian bordello are getting ready for yet another night of work. The faint light of dusk reveals grittiness and despair behind the glamour and bathtubs filled with champagne — tired women wash off heavy-powdered faces and scrub at their stained thighs — in Bertrand Bonello’s heartbreaking film, featuring Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Adèle Haenel.

2. Working Girls (1986)

In one of the early scenes of Lizzie Borden’s Sundance Special Jury Prize-winning feature Working Girls, Molly (Louise Smith) has her legs spread wide open on the floor of a changing room just as Gina (Marusia Zach) walks through the door, promptly offering to help her colleague safely place her contraception. It’s a bold statement that perfectly sets the tone for this groundbreaking, female-driven examination of the complex labour and gender dynamics of a high-end New York brothel.

3. Sauvage (2018)

Battered and bruised, 22-year-old sex worker Léo (Félix Maritaud) looks for comfort in a fellow street hustler who wants nothing to do with him, feeding into the pattern of self-deprecation that seems to guide — and, to some extent, curse — his life. He spends his days coming and going out of shady apartments, indulging in dodgy drugs in a desperate attempt to numb the pain of his existence. So just something a bit light, really!

4. Exotica (1994)

“We are here to entertain, not to heal”, says the madam in charge of Exotica, Toronto’s finest sex club. The message falls on the unwilling ears of a depressed tax auditor named Francis (Bruce Greenwood), who visits the club night after night to meet popular dancer Christina (Mia Kirshner). Maintaining the façade of “just another obsessive client”, Francis hides an intricate web of grief, co-dependency and crime, all of which is slowly unwound at the masterful hands of Canadian director Atom Egoyan in this Cannes Film Festival prize-winning thriller.

5. Confessions of a Brazilian Call Girl (2013)

In a move that would take her to national stardom, a call girl named Bruna Surfistinha launches an online blog in early 2003, sharing racy anecdotes of her day-to-day as a sex worker. Think Carrie Bradshaw’s New York Star column, but make it actually interesting. Confessions of a Brazilian Call Girl is a startling adaptation of Surfistinha’s autobiography, from her cushy childhood as the adoptive daughter of an upper-class family to the teenage rebellion that led her into the depths of a tricky drug problem.

6. Jezebel (2019)

Writer-director Numa Perrier drew on her own experiences as a cam girl in the late 90s to write the semi biographical coming of age drama Jezebel, a film shot in a tight ten days and in the same apartment complex she once lived while working in Las Vegas. The filmmaker’s personal connection to the theme is deeply felt throughout this raw chronicle.

7. Cam (2018)

If Jezebel grapples with the idea of the internet as an embryonic platform for sex work, Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam is a total 180 degree pivot in its exploration of the frantic, ever-evolving online culture of today. The film is a witty psychological horror that examines our harmful obsession with metrics and productivity. In the lead role as cam girl Lola is Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale) in a performance that’ll have you combing the rest of her filmography for more.

8. Crimes of Passion (1984)

Ethical lines are badly muddled when a private investigator whose marriage is on the rocks finds himself trailing a mysterious sex worker in Ken Russell’s sharply-written erotic thriller. The film blessed us all with a series of deliciously quotable Katherine Turner one-liners such as, “If you think you’re gonna get back in my panties, forget it. There’s an asshole in there already!” and “I’m fit as a fiddle and ready for cock!”

9. Piercing (2018)

Indie darlings Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska are a meticulous killer and an unhinged call girl respectively in Nicolas Pesce’s macabre adaptation. The story is taken from Ryū Murakami's cult novel of the same name, originally published in 1994, in which a man’s dreams of committing the perfect murder are shattered by an S&M-loving dominatrix.

10. PVT Chat (2020)

Julia Fox pouts her lips and squeezes her boobs in a dildo-filled room as a very horny Jack (Peter Vack) watches on, his contorted face made visible only by the light emanating from his computer. The man’s distant fantasy of possessing the girl on his screen becomes a distinct possibility when he spots her in a bodega a few blocks away from his flat, and the boundaries between reality and fantasy collapse. PVT Chat is a raunchy sex thriller for the perpetually online, five stars.

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