“Portraits of Andrea Palmer” offers an unflinchingly brutal and disturbing glimpse into the darker side of the sex industry (18+ only).
I have a soft spot for films most people would dismiss out of hand. While there are films I can’t really recommend to any “normal” viewer, I believe they deserve attention for their bold and subversive content and distinctly original point of view.
It’s with this frame of reference that I went into my viewing of the narrative XXX exploitation film Portraits of Andrea Palmer, co-written and co-directed by C. Huston and Joe Rubin (co-founder of Vinegar Syndrome). It’s not the first time I’ve reviewed a film with such explicit content, and (for better or worse) I’m not afraid to tread where most refuse to go.
With opening scenes shot in stark black and white (which soon transition into color), we’re first introduced to Andrea Palmer (Katrina Zova), a troubled and drug-addicted young woman who spends her days working as a cam girl. But it’s immediately apparent that she’s miserable and battling some nasty inner demons.
After a man belittles her during a web cam performance, she breaks down, insisting that she deserves better. That’s when she receives an unexpected phone call from a stranger who tells her she’s got real potential. He offers a lucrative job in LA as an exotic model. She’s so desperate for validation — and a glimmer of hope — that she hops on a plane, no questions asked. Sadly, there’s no job. And she finds herself stranded and alone. With no money and no one to turn to for help, she’s forced to prostitute herself.
There’s an overwhelming sense of despair and dread as we watch Andrea sleepwalk through one increasingly degrading sexual encounter after another — dead eyed and broken, like a zombie dragging around her lifeless, soulless corpse.
As she takes one soul-crushing job after another to survive, her plight becomes harder and harder to watch. There’s a growing sense of foreboding as her situation becomes increasingly bleak.
After a series of experiencing men behaving badly, Andrea receives a response to her Craiglist ad — and an offer to pay her $500 for a full day of her time. She eagerly accepts and climbs into a van with a kind looking older gentleman (played by William Margold, legendary pornographic film actor and director).
For once, a man just wants to talk and get to know her. He wants to hear her story. He wants to know why she seems so sad — and what brought her to such a painful point in her life. We see a rare, unforced and genuine smile from Ande, and it’s a moment that briefly restores her faith in humanity — letting her see that all men aren’t monsters…that she has more to offer than just her body.
Tragically, the brief reprieve from her living nightmare is short lived. Upon returning to her apartment, a previous night’s John is waiting for her inside. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do just that, culminating in extreme violence and tragedy.
The decision to populate the film with graphic scenes of non-simulated sex is certainly one that will alienate the majority of mainstream horror audiences. Even many hardcore horror fans will be uncomfortable with the pornographic content. However, while this is undoubtedly X-rated, there’s nothing titillating about the sex. It’s dirty, uncomfortable, and deeply unsatisfying — for both Ande and the viewer.
By exposing the viewer to these unflinchingly raw and uncensored scenes, the filmmaker forces us to experience these traumatic events through Ande’s eyes. Her suffering is palpable. It’s a miserable existence, and we feel every painful moment of it.
We see how much she hates herself and what her life has become. She abuses herself in a way that mirrors how she’s been abused by others — clearly convincing herself that this is what she deserves. These scenes of destructive and degrading self-abuse are incredibly difficulty to endure.
At no point is the sex glamorized or enjoyable to watch. Rather than taking you out of the film, these graphic sex scenes help fully immerse you in the story and serve to move the narrative along. This is exploitation cinema to be sure, but it’s first and foremost gritty and dramatic storytelling.
Even while watching clearly pornographic scenes of hardcore sex, it never really feels like “porn”. Rather, it has that brutal and visceral impact reminiscent of A Serbian Film.
The performances are shockingly good. Zova, especially, does a brilliant job conveying Ande’s vulnerability, despair, desperation, and loneliness. It’s one of those performances, like Ameara LaVey’s work in the Vomit Gore Trilogy, that feels so brutally honest and exposed that it blurs the line between fantasy and reality.
Portraits of Andrea Palmer is artfully shot in 16mm, with a haunting score that helps establish the bleak and distressing tone of the film.