If you’re searching for titillation, look elsewhere. Lovelace, the new film on porn’s throatiest star, veers away from the raunchy stuff (except as fodder for comedy) and instead reveals the anguish behind closed doors. The approach isn’t exactly new: as a genre, the biopic often spotlights the fractured personalities found in show business. For a figure as notorious as Linda Lovelace, historically minded filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, Howl) may have felt a clearing of the record was in order. Yet in pursuit of biographical tabula rasa, the filmmakers fall short of presenting a dynamic character with the kinds of imperfections a similarly imperfect audience can latch onto.
The trappings of Freudian psychology, at least, are in full effect. The film opens with Linda still bound to her hypertraditional Catholic parents. Sharon Stone’s Mommie Dearest matriarch mines the stock character of feminine repression perfected in Carrie, imposing strict curfews and shaming her daughter’s indecent denim shorts. Despite this environment—or rather because of it, so the film’s logic implies—Linda, with the help of “liberated” BFF Juno Temple, finds her way into nightclubs, where an attempt at go-go dancing catches the eye of an amply mustachioed lecher, Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard). Though he reeks scumbag from the start, Linda is duped and begins a relationship filled with manipulation, violence, and, yes, pornography. It’s through him that she acquires the knack for fellatio that later brings her fame in the smash-hit Deep Throat.
At first, things don’t seem so bad. In a weird stylistic turn, a bubbly sequence depicting Lovelace’s rise suggests how her life looked like from the outside: a blissful marriage; producers lingering over her fresh-faced look; time spent hobnobbing with Sammy Davis Jr. and Hugh Hefner (James Franco). In one scene that’s almost idyllic, Linda, bedecked in rose-colored glasses, drives through sun-drenched Seventies backdrops, filmed from the backseat. She seems carefree, and the slowly gliding camera and dutifully accurate costumes (stripes, paisleys, ruffles) give the impression of a miniature fantasy world. Then suddenly we’re six years in the future: Linda, sans bouffant hairdo, takes a polygraph test insisted upon by the publisher of her tell-all memoir. As if to mimic the experience of her readers, we watch her climb once again—only this time with expanded scenes of Chuck controlling the powerless Linda.
While these moments of adversity complicate the dirty fairy-tale of girl-next-door-turned-porn-star, they don’t bring us any closer to understanding the woman at its center. And although the film invokes the seedy world of adult film, Linda professes virtually no desires of her own (she is rarely even seen alone on screen). If it’s an attempt to sell her as a mixed-up kid mired in bad business, the script is inconsistent. In fact, the only thing the script is clear on is that Linda is guiltless. By glossing over the rumors and contradictions that plague her legacy, Lovelace presents a Linda who is strangely innocent. But the truth is more complicated, and the film suffers by trying too hard to protect its protagonist.
That’s a shame, because Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Linda is hands-down the best thing about the film. Her uncertain glances and ever-changing body language capture a confused girl caught between sinner and saint, past and future. Seyfried is also game for capturing all the awkward fumblings that make this X-rated act, more than passionate, something funny and even ridiculous. Her capacity to shift quickly from insecurity to self-assurance to full-fledged laughter allows a faithful and sensitive portrait of what it is to be a young girl learning the ins and outs of sex. With a script willing to do justice to its challenging protagonist, Seyfried could easily have given a more nuanced performance. As it is, however, Linda Lovelace is not so much a character as the center of action. By aiming for the audience’s sympathy, Lovelace tidies and ultimately silences the star it tries to redeem.