Not so much a film about Linda Lovelace as a film about a bunch of things that happen to Linda Lovelace, including a destructive marriage to seeming complete, total, bonafide scumbag sonofabitch Chuck Traynor, today saw the first international screening of Sundance pick-up “Lovelace” at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s a glossy, starry package featuring loving ’70s set design, costuming and narratively crucial hairstyling (more on that later), but the main question was always around the casting of the leading lady, especially given that the last few years have seen a flurry of names come and go from both this and rival Lovelace project “Inferno” (which famously once boasted Seyfried’s “Mean Girls” co-star Lindsay Lohan). Yes, Lovelace was herself by many accounts a very sweet and warm person, but she was also the first porn superstar, and later on a vocal anti-porn crusader; we knew Seyfried could play the white swan, but could she play the black swan? Actually she probably could have, if she had been given the right script: Seyfried’s performance is the best thing about the film by miles, it’s just a shame there isn’t more to her role.
It’s a weird paradox: Seyfried’s Lovelace gets a lot of screen time, but rarely to herself. Instead she’s there for things to happen to: to be beaten or controlled or hired out for rape by husband-of-the-year Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), to be talked about and talked at by the various men who, essentially, own her, who see her not only as an object of sexual desire, but increasingly as a cash cow. Rarely does she display any agency of her own, and yes, we do know that is an accurate reflection of what happens in many abusive spousal relationships, (and possibly of the sexual politics at the time, especially in the porn industry), we just wish we saw more of it through Lovelace’s eyes. She may have been submissive, but she wasn’t absent or vegetative, so why can’t we get inside her head? Why can’t we understand the psychology behind her submissiveness? A thrown away “My mom told be to obey my husband” just doesn’t cut it, and in any case that’s taken directly from presumably real footage of an interview on the “Donahue” show. What does “Lovelace” tell us about Linda Lovelace that is not already part of the public domain?
Not a lot, really. In only covering the period between the lead up to and the implosion of her relationship with Traynor, the film reads more as “Linda & Chuck: Portrait Of the Shittiest Marriage In History” than as “Lovelace.” And the structure only compounds that: in a self-conscious and not wholly successful stylistic flourish, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“Howl”) tell the main part of the story twice. First, we get the “outward appearance” part: happy wedding day, joyfully learning the skill that will make her famous, meeting Sammy Davis Jr. at a screening, and being flattered and complimented by Hugh Hefner (James Franco). Then a title appears and we’re six years later and Linda is strapped up to a polygraph requested by the publishers of her tell-all book before we confusingly jump back in time again. This time we get longer, fuller cuts of many of the scenes mentioned above, in which the sexual violence is revealed to have begun on her wedding night, and Hefner is revealed to have followed up his compliments and flattery with a demand for oral sex. The problem here again is that we are getting entirely new information, not ‘seeing the same scenes from Linda’s point of view,’ as is probably the intent. So what could have been a useful device in helping us understand what was going on in Lovelace’s head instead just ends up muddying the narrative waters. At times, it’s only Linda’s hairstyle that really tells us where we are in the story: “ah, it’s the big corkscrew perm, so we’re post-marriage, but pre ‘Deep Throat.’ ”
So what of the famous movie itself? Strange to say, this section is probably the blandest in the whole film, with the sexism of the producers (Hank Azaria, A Terrible Wig, Bobby Cannavale — yes, the wig does deserve its own credit) played for laughs, and the shoot coming across as kind of a lark for all concerned, and Lovelace’s “did I do something wrong?” when her amazing talent makes co-star Harry Reems (Adam Brody) come too soon, surely just too guileless to be believed. The filming of the scene also marks a kind of turning point in the story; as frothy and “Carry On Doctor” as it is, from here on out everything gets worse for Linda, as Chuck gets deeper into debt, especially to Mafioso ‘investor’ Romano (Chris Noth), and deeper into drugs. But despite all the drama and the increasingly extreme violence Lovelace suffers, this is also the point at which the film starts to lose our interest.
We come back again to our biggest bugbear. Without a real sense of what made Lovelace tick, the rest of the runtime simply becomes an abstract experiment in wondering at what point the abuse will get so bad that she will leave. And with the film so firmly on her side, we are allowed no illuminating details that might cast her as anything but a victim of the evil machinations of others — rumours of her own drug abuse, and the counter-arguments to her portrayal of Traynor may as well not exist as far as this film is concerned. The whitewashing is counterproductive — we might not have liked Linda quite so much if we caught a glimpse of her own dark side or met a few of her own internal demons, but we certainly would have understood her better. Truth is, despite Seyfried’s gameness, we come away a little deadened from the experience and knowing precious little more than before about the person who inhabited the body, the life, and the throat of Linda Lovelace. [C+]