From the opening minutes of "She's Lost Control," it's clear that Anja Marquardt's portrait of a sex surrogate in New York City will take its subject matter seriously, using a studied manner that gives the material fresh context. With Brooke Bloom's central performance giving the movie its dramatic anchor, "She's Lost Control" strikes a fascinating mood between slow-building angst and cold remove not unlike the Joy Division song that provides its title.
As single Manhattanite Ronah, Bloom (last year's "Swim Little Fish Swim") initially projects an unsettling degree of confidence about her profession, going through the motions with various clients while Marquardt frames her topic with startling matter-of-factness. We see fragments of Ronah's routine — she talks various men through their physical hangups in hushed tones — and catch similarly fleeting snapshots of her drab personal life. With time, however, it becomes evident that this unorthodox way of life can't possibly sustain the settled quality that Ronah brings to it. Bit by bit, the problems add up: Glimmers of her family issues in upstate New York, her concerns about her future, and a client for whom she might be developing feelings all slowly bear down on her, setting the stage for an alarming climax. The cryptic atmosphere yields an alluring look at the intersection of physical and psychological intimacy.
By virtue of its premise, "She's Lost Control" calls to mind certain obvious precedents, but maintains a unique tone. It's almost too easy to recognize that the quasi-romance at the center of Marquardt's story contains elements of "The Sessions" without the excessive sentimentalism, while its vision of professional sexuality suggests "The Girlfriend Experience" minus the sleaze factor. But Marquardt aims more precisely for a character study in which the themes quietly percolate through her subject's disposition.
In its engrossing first act, "She's Lost Control" proceeds with a straightforward depiction of Ronah's process through glimpses of her interactions with various clients as well as her monotonous employer. While he provides the intellectual framework for her endeavors, it's the physical strategies she applies to each session that initially create the impression of a productive endeavor: As she convinces one man to explore an isolated part of her body, gaze into her eyes for several seconds at a time, or gently coaxes another to remove his shirt, Ronah maintains a clinical disposition that gives these initial scenes the aura of a documentary. Then she meets Johnny (Marc Menchaca), an anxiety-riddled, alcoholic doctor whose restrained demeanor echoes her own, and things get complicated.
"You can't control how I feel," Ronah asserts during one of her sessions. "That's just between us." Marquardt's screenplay puts that notion to the test as Ronah coaxes gradually coaxes Johnny out of his shell, and starts to feel something for him. Marquardt contrasts their increasingly tender bedroom conversations with the more straightforward interactions she has with other men, as well as the spare details of her personal life (implying that she barely has one): coping with plumbing issues, dodging calls from her brother about their mentally unstable mother — and, most suggestively, freezing her eggs. Meanwhile, a mysterious caller keeps stalking her phone, and she evades questions from Johnny about her private life. In the near-theatrical minimalism that defines their tense exchanges, it's clear that they're both hiding the full depths of their anguish; it's only a matter of time before those puzzle pieces come into play with shocking results.
Needless to say, Ronah's state of self-assurance is a guise she wears well, even as the movie questions whether her attempts to help others confront their insecurities reflect a state of denial about her own issues. The spell is only broken in the movie's final minutes, when one twist too many pushes the plot too far. Even so, "She's Lost Control" shrewdly avoids judgement of its character except to insinuate that she hasn't fully considered the ramifications of her actions until it's too late. Having established that her version of sex therapy exists in "a safe place" early on, "She's Lost Control" ends with the haunting suggestion that such a sanctuary doesn't exist.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? An under-the-radar entry at the Berlin film festival, "She's Lost Control" is poised to receive more attention at the SXSW Film Festival, and while theatrical prospects are limited, its ostensibly salacious hook should give it a leg up in ancillary markets.