The new biopic of 'pioneering' porn star Linda Lovelace wants it both ways

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film fetishises the 70s porn style, then tuts at all the exploitation

• News: Deep Throat lawsuit threatens to swallow Lovelace
• Peter Sarsgaard interviewed for Lovelace
• Lovelace: first look review from Sundance

There's plenty to admire about Lovelace, the second feature from documentarians Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (their first was Howl), including a surprisingly nuanced performance from Amanda Seyfried as the tragic frontierswoman of 70s hardcore porn, and sterling work from Peter Sarsgaard as Lovelace's husband/manager/pimp/owner/dungeonkeeper Chuck Traynor, and from Robert Patrick and Sharon Stone as her emotionally repressed working-class parents. Stone is almost unrecognisable as Linda's ice-cold, Livia Soprano-esque mother, who keeps telling her frightened daughter: "Go back to your husband." (Lovelace, incidentally, has more than a passing kinship with Stone's own tragic heroine in Casino.)

Plus it's the 1970s, so the costume department get to go hog-wild on bellbottoms, loon pants, the loudest, vilest shirts imaginable, and some very unfortunate period-specific hair-don'ts (Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano, played here by Hank Azaria, famously sported some of the grossest haircuts of the entire era – and he was a hairdresser). The film-makers, who are enormously well-respected documentarians of the late 20th-century gay experience (Word Is Out, The Times of Harvey Milk), have opted to shoot in a porny-looking, washed-out colour stock that precisely imparts the feeling of grainy, south Floridian scuzziness detectable in Deep Throat itself.

Narrative is where the problems arise. The movie's first 46 minutes are the story told one way: think of it as recreating the joyfully hedonistic section of Boogie Nights before William H Macy shoots himself. We dig on the styles, the muscle cars, the lurid wallpaper, the countercultural aspects of porn's 70s self-image. Then, exactly at the halfway point, there's a subtitle – "Six years later" – and Linda's taking a polygraph test to appease the publishers of her 1980 autobiography, in which she tells of being gang raped, beaten, exploited, imprisoned by Traynor… and the story begins all over again. This time we see the beatings, the jail-house mind-games, the drugs, the pimpery. This half is darker, bleaker, uglier; more Wonderland meets Star 80.

I can see why, as documentarians, Epstein and Friedman did this. They have a courtroom's need for balanced argument; and Lovelace's post-porn autobiography has been assailed by as many witnesses as have confirmed its truth. The problem isn't that this device failed to help me decide who was "lying" (so what, neither did Rashomon). Lovelace, fatally, failed to make me care either way. In the end, given the more rigorous and gripping documentary Inside Deep Throat and several other movies about porn that have done all this before, I fail to grasp Lovelace's raison d'être. This is a true story with far less to tell us than its fictional doppelgangers.

More on Lovelace

• News: Deep Throat lawsuit threatens to swallow Lovelace
• Peter Sarsgaard interviewed for Lovelace
• Lovelace: first look review from Sundance


John Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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