Can you have graphic depictions of sex in a feature film outside the genre of pornography? Daring filmmakers have been taking on that question for years, resulting in hotly-debated films like In The Realm Of The Senses, Romance and Ken Park. The latest film tackling this eternal question is Portraits Of Andrea Palmer. Unlike the aforementioned films, this film’s heart lies more on the grindhouse side of the street but it’s no less deeply felt or daring in its execution.
Portraits Of Andrea Palmer is a series of vignettes build around the final days of the title character (adult film actress Katrina Zova), a camgirl who is lured out to Los Angeles with the promise of developing her career as a sex star. When she discovers this was just a prankster’s trick, she drifts into a world of low-rent backroom porn, scam artists and prostitution. She finds a momentary respite in an escort date with a philosophic older man (Golden age porn star Bill Margold in his final role) but she also falls under the sway of a hustler (Richard Wright) whose cruelty pushes her to the brink.
The result feels less like an arthouse/porn crossover and more like a really grim underground film that uses explicit sex as part of its hard-edged style. Directors C. Huston and J. Lyons (a.k.a. Joe Rubin) emulate a ’70s/early ’80s low-budget look with 16mm photography and a style of handheld camerawork that harkens back to the vintage adult films Rubin releases through his Vinegar Syndrome home video company. This atmosphere is further supported by well-chosen locations that usually show off the dark, seamy side of Los Angeles.
Another key component of this approach is the use of explicit sex. To the filmmakers’ credit, the sex is presented in a matter-of-fact manner that reflects its grim take on its main character’s life. The sex scenes range from rote/mechanical to vicious, getting more brutal as the protagonist slips deeper into a vortex of abuse and manipulation. Each encounter is filmed in a non-eroticized way that places a focus on how each degradation deadens her soul a little more.
However, the dramatic component of Portraits Of Andrea Palmer isn’t as strong as its sense of daring. The vignette approach means the narrative is skeletal and leaves the reader with some questions, like how Andrea is conned so easily into going out to Los Angeles or why she submits to her hustler nemesis at the end rather than try to run. The performances are often rough, something to expected in a shoestring endeavor that demands so much sexual explicitness from its cast, and the fact that much of the dialogue is post-dubbed further lessens the impact of the performances.
That said, if you’re interested in this kind of underground, boundary-testing fare, Portraits of Andrea Palmer has a raw power to it that commands attention. Everyone involved is committed to its bleak vision and the finale is as hypnotic as it is vicious, with a final punch that pulls the film into horror territory. Whether or not it will appeal to you is a matter of personal taste but no one can deny the specific vision or the sense of courage invested in how it was made.