Some Things Never Change: Yet More Badly Written Female Characters, Led by 'Lovelace'

Fellow writer and film nerd Violet LeVoit made a solid case recently that Deep Throat is of such cultural and historical significance that it should be added to U.S. National Film Registry alongside Citizen Kane and the Zapruder film. No one will ever make the same case for Lovelace (Anchor Bay DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming), a new biopic of the star of Deep Throat. Despite being based on a true story so lurid it can't help but fascinate, and despite an overwhelmingly great cast led by Amanda Seyfried and Peter Sarsgaard, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman totally cock it up.

Linda Boreman (Seyfried) is introduced as a teenage prude, but it doesn't take long for creepy older dude Chuck Traynor (Sarsgaard) to turn her first to sexual libertinism, then to matrimony (with him), and then to triple-X, where the, um, neat trick he taught her revolutionized the adult-film world, began the ongoing mainstreaming of porn, and made the rebranded Linda Lovelace a household name. What about all the abuse she supposedly endured at Traynor's hands, the services she was forced to perform on camera and off, the troubled afterlife of the average pioneering porn performer? Well, first, Epstein and Friedman, working from a script from Andy Bellin, show you the best possible, sex-positive face of Lovelace's experience; and then they effectively start the story over, showing you Traynor's violence, his pimping of his wife/cash cow, and the overall downsides of life as a famous fellatrix in the early days of the sexual revolution. Why they do this, other than perhaps a desire to be ridiculously pedantic, remains a mystery.

And Sarsgaard is so good, with his tiny-eyed smile and weird beard/sideburns thing that doesn't sit on his jawline, and though Seyfried isn't really playing a human being, exactly, just a vessel for the filmmakers' ideas about their subject, she retains some appeal. Even Sharon Stone, nearly unrecognizable as Linda's mother, delivers knock-out scene after knock-out scene. (Robert Patrick, Debi Mazar, and Chris Noth impress in smaller parts, too.) But they're all trapped in this dreadful movie. And for a final insult, Epstein and Friedman assume none of us have seen either Boogie Nights or Star 80 and thus rip them off whenever possible. This movie sucks.

Of course, female characters stuck in nasty male constructs are nothing new. French director Alain Corneau's 2010 Love Crime was a slick, smart thriller with style. Remade by Brian De Palma as Passion (Entertainment One DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming), it's still slick and somewhat stylish, but its smarts are less in evidence. Rachel McAdams is in over her head as a cunning corporate vixen out to undermine her underling, played by Noomi Rapace. The age difference in the original has been replaced with an ostensible difference in desirability; Rapace wears black suits and bangs, in contrast to McAdams' more elegant wardrobe and, well, blondness. This is a big mistake. The latter comes off more as a bitchy coquette than a player; the former never finds a way to telegraph her character's calculation in a way that seems like more than dumb luck. Complaining that a De Palma film is an oversexed, underbright melodrama with a lot of cool camera tricks does seem to miss the whole point of him, it's true, but this feels like fatuous tedium, not campy fun.

But not every male director is out to do terrible, thoughtless things to his female characters, as it happens. Coming at the end of this particular viewing string, Neil Jordan's Byzantium (MPI DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) comes off as positively feminist. Jordan doesn't have the same name recognition as De Palma, but his oeuvre is arguably more interesting, with strong suits in gritty accounts of the demimonde (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game) and gothic fairy tales (The Company of Wolves, In Dreams). Byzantium lands smack between the two poles. Two women—Gemma Arterton as blowsy Clara and Saoirse Ronan as self-contained teen Eleanor—flee trouble and wind up taking refuge in an old rooming house in a crumbling off-season resort town at the English seaside. The fact that they're vampires complicates matters.

There's kind of too much going on here—the flashbacked backstory of how Clara and Elly became what they are, a secret order of vampires that tolerates no women, a young human suitor (Caleb Landry Jones) for Elly—but Jordan earns a lot of goodwill by making it all look great, from the rotting promenade and misty dusks of the resort to a waterfall of blood. And he scores biggest by having great characters. Despite being alive for 200 years, Clara has no better resources for supporting them than to default to sex work, and Arterton plays both her situational practicality, but also her limits and her closely held awareness of them. And Ronan brings across a teenage girl who happens to be a killer, but who is without a killer's soul. They feel like the closest thing to real women in the bunch.