It was in Uncut Gems that the world was first properly introduced to Julia Fox onscreen, but the multifaceted performer’s talent has been finding a way to shock, seduce and compel viewers far beyond the Safdie brothers’ film. In PVT Chat, in particular, Fox’s magnetic charm is weaponised – Saffron Maeve unspools what it is that makes Fox so beguiling.
“Am I your favourite cam girl?”
“My God, you’re my favourite girl, period.”
When Julia Fox speaks, you listen. She’s a natural born dominatrix, hypnotist, politician: she spins questions into declarations and suffuses her characters with enough likeability and intrigue to lock viewers in instantly. When she’s latex-clad and reclining in front of a violently pink wall of dildos, ropes, and floggers, you hang onto her every word.
Ben Hozie’s stylishly economical PVT Chat sees Fox play Scarlet, a cam girl who catches the attention (and subsequent obsession) of a lonely, horny Internet gambler, Jack (Peter Vack). It is quickly apparent that Jack wants something more from Scarlet than what she’s offering online. “How much do I have to tip you for you to just, like, drop the act a little bit and just talk to me?” he asks her the second time they meet.
Through tips, he coaxes truths out of her, such as her reasoning for camming and her covert love for painting. Jack’s fascination with Scarlet doesn’t appear actionable, as she claims to live in San Francisco, until he becomes convinced that he’s spotted her traipsing the aisles of a nearby bodega. Jack’s fixation is textbook, and ugly. His response to the three chimes that inform him that “MODEL SCARLET IS NOW ONLINE” is painfully Pavlovian, and his nonchalant stalking and skulking around her home is unsettling, to say the least.
By design, PVT Chat seems primed to be regarded as a low-stakes Uncut Gems: both films see a manic, compulsive liar bet and squander his earnings while being catastrophically horny for Julia Fox and the great city of New York (not to mention fellow Safdie alum, Buddy Duress, who crops up often). Hozie said he conjoined camming and online gambling with the aim of creating “a modern take on perennial film noir themes.” This would grant Julia Fox the title of femme fatale, but refreshingly and rather unsurprisingly, the actress cannot be contained by such archetypes.
Hozie has also mentioned that his depiction of camming is grounded in sex positivity, rather than the familiar tropes that delegimitize or mock sex work for shock value and cheap laughs. In the film’s opening sequence, aptly scored by grunts and low moans, Scarlet blows smoke into the lens and simulates putting a cigarette out on Jack’s tongue. She laughs at him and instructs him to lick the bottom of her shoe.
It would be too easy for this material to slip into murkier waters, where Scarlet’s degrading remarks are either laid on too thick or unconvincingly thin. Fox, whose status as a “non-actor” in Uncut Gems might mislead viewers to think that she’s only ever playing herself, is the reason a film like PVT Chat works. We may be initially lulled into thinking that she’s not the focus, but through Fox’s dually vulnerable, risky performance, Scarlet and her hot pink backdrop are etched into our minds for the whole film.
About an hour in, Scarlet upends Jack’s narrative arc and his story becomes hers. We see Scarlet in her home for a change, beyond the limitations of a laptop placed haphazardly in Jack’s scuzzy apartment. It’s a jarring image: she’s sprawled out and smoking on her bed, high-heeled boots rhythmically clacking against the wall. It feels invasive, which is funny because watching PVT Chat is like peering through keyholes for 86 minutes – but that’s because this is her own space, not the one carved out for strangers on the internet.
PVT Chat maintains a narrative veneer of misogyny by having Jack repeatedly stalk Scarlet and somehow still bed her in the end, but the work is self-satirizing enough that these sequences appear more intent on deriding rom-com tropes than satisfying the market of young men who will inevitably identify with Jack.
At one point, the film features a cushy montage of Jack and Scarlet’s evolving relationship via chatroom, complete with her “meeting” his friends and trying to fit her artwork into the webcam’s frame. Fox and Vack’s innate chemistry, coupled with their characters’ unusual sexual dynamic, manages to both adopt and reject tenets of traditional romance plots: the meet-cute, the well-worn romanticization of stalking, the budding stage of mutual self-betterment. We watch Scarlet delicately rediscover her passion for art in a way that seems so genuine, my brain keeps telling my fingertips to Google where to buy one of her paintings.
The film ends fittingly, with a reinstatement of its original power dynamic. Scarlet lies on one end of a bed, smoking, while Jack gets off on watching her a few feet away. Some boundaries have softened, as the two are no longer separated by a screen: Scarlet can now reach over and drag hot ash along Jack’s tongue, and Jack can actually flinch from the pain; a nearby cell tower could implode and they would still be having sex. I don’t know what to make of this pseudo-happy ending, or if there’s anything to make of it at all. It reaffirms Jack’s fantasy of Scarlet as dominant and unattainable, while still granting her agency, but I can’t say I’m keen on seeing Jack, a bona fide creep, gratified in the end.
Where PVT Chat thrives, however, is in its ability to toy with both the sexual excitement and the fear factor of camming; the uncanny feeling that comes with seeing someone from the digital aether materialize on a sidewalk in Chinatown, like a ghost or faulty copy of their online self. A similar concept is used to stir horror into digital space in Cam, wherein a cam girl discovers a doppelgänger posing as her online. It comes as no surprise, then, that these narratives would favor sex work, a profession that presupposes the ability and subsequent threat to shapeshift at will. It comes as even less of a surprise that Julia Fox, whose sweet disposition is just as potent as her intimidating persona, would be the one to shake that horny-horror cocktail into existence.
Through side hustles and creative stints, Fox has become something of a Renaissance woman: an actress, a filmmaker, a writer, an artist, a dominatrix, a self-described “anti-it girl,” someone who shamelessly drinks cow milk straight from the source, and most recently, a mother.
Much like her character, Julia, in Uncut Gems (a role that was built for and around her by the Safdie brothers), Scarlet appears to be an amalgam of Fox’s past and present. In high school, she worked as a dominatrix for six months, to which she credits her acting ability. “They were all weird but nice,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “Like, submissive men who all had issues.” And like Scarlet, Fox is an artist. Her exhibition, R.I.P Julia Fox, a meta-funeral for herself inspired by a near-death experience a decade prior, explored idolatry, violence, eroticism and fetish through flowery altars and tortured bodies painted in Fox’s own blood onto silk canvases. Here, her self-eulogizing offered a meditation on sacrifice and her own musehood, the latter of which persists in her professional life.
The women Fox plays, whose vibrancy are most often attributed to good writing on the part of male writer-directors, are really spawned from her own experiences. The same could be said for any actor who successfully immerses themselves in a role, but thus far, it seems as though Fox doesn’t become the character so much as the character becomes her.
One particular scene in PVT Chat exacerbates Scarlet’s feelings of being an unintentional muse. On a small theatre stage (the space of which is paid for by Scarlet herself), she watches two second-rate actors playing a version of her and Duke, in a play that he wrote. Duke lite tells Scarlet lite that she’s a whore by definition, and that she should stop entertaining men online. “I feel raped of my own issues that I haven’t even come to terms with,” she earnestly tells Duke afterwards. “Isn’t that kind of a good thing?” he responds.
This isn’t to antagonize the directors who have successfully capitalized upon Julia Fox’s image, and who have made fascinating films by doing so, but it makes for a more layered viewing experience; one in which Fox’s artistic generosity cannot be shunted aside in favour of her male collaborators. I often think about something she once said in an interview, when asked about being an artist: “I want the things that I create to outshine the person that I am perceived to be.” It’s no wonder, then, that Scarlet, who shares in Fox’s ethos, feels so utterly lived-in.
Saffron Maeve (@saffronmaeve) is a film writer studying English and Cinema at the University of Toronto, with aspirations to have her own Criterion closet video. When she’s not writing, she can be found rewatching The Goonies and pestering everyone she knows to do the same.