A few weeks ago I decided to shirk some of my home responsibilities by hunkering down on my family’s couch with a cup of scalding hot coffee and a huge slice of cake (chocolate, naturally) to watch what Netflix promised to be one of the more sensual erotic thrillers Australia had to offer in 2011, Jon Hewitt’s X. Sexy Australians running around Sydney hell bent on killing and/or not getting killed; prostitutes trying to get out of the game but getting pulled back in for one last gig? That sounded like a good time to me. I know we all feel hot and cold when it comes to Netflix and their questionable suggestion algorithm, however I was feeling lucky and honestly the DVD really needed to make its way back to my local distribution after three months of gathering dust. So, why not give what would have been considered a conventional Cinemax after-hours sexy time (but since it’s Australian it’s art) a try?
Hewitt’s film opens with the camera trained on a black wigged and big sunglass wearing Holly (Viva Bianca) and her male companion as they travel to a sex party hosted by some upper-crust Sydney ladies of leisure. Holly shares with the women the thrills of having a man in on display who is only there to please. She strips her companion, allowing every woman to whet their appetite on this virile young man before she straddles him in front of the women. It’s worth pointing out that Hewitt’s camera stays focused on the women watching more than she does on the act Holly is committing. We have a rare moment where women are providing the gaze, rather than men. It’s clever and feels just as invasive as if men were the ones in the audience. Hewitt is suggesting that women have just as much of an appetite for gazing sexually as men, and we like to do it with champagne and equally beautiful men and women as the subject of our gaze.
In a nod to erotic thrillers in the vein of Brian De Palma, Hewitt’s script features a morally grey relationship for our prostitute with less than a heart of gold. Once her final gig is complete Holly prepares herself for dinner with the man she loves but cannot be with, Ligurian (Peter Docker). We later find out through the course of the film that her lover is a cop and his tangling with a prostitute is as secretive as you would suspect. Ligurian both feels protective of his Holly, but he also views her as a piece of property he gets to keep. She seems genuinely afraid of him at points, but that fear dissolves into sexually trickery when he beds her after a disastrous dinner. Holly is so used to denying her own feelings when fucking, and even with the one man she feels the most for she cannot allow herself to offer her emotions fully to him.
Good thing, as Ligurian is a brute in bed. He is rough, unconcerned with the placement or pressure of his hand around her delicate neck. Hewitt is unrelenting, leaving his camera steady at the same level as the two lovers as if he was filming a snuff film. We cannot escape these images, our own desire turning into fear as Holly’s mounts. She struggles against Ligurian, which only forces him to push a pillow over her face so he cannot hear the sobs quietly echoing from her throat. It is a moment that is at once exceptionally sensual and then quickly turns disgusting as we realize Holly is coerced into giving her body to this man. Her only power is to keep her mind to herself.
Holly lies for a living. She lies about her own pleasure, she lies about her intentions to leave Sydney for Paris in the morning, and she lies to Ligurian about how he doesn’t scare her. Even when she’s supposed to love a man, she cannot turn off her own self preservation. Holly lies to herself that she can actually get out of the business.
16-year-old Shay (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) does not have the same luxury of over 16 years in the hooking business. Tonight is her first night on the streets, and it is an explosive one. Shay is first picked up by a John who wants her call him Daddy and pretend to be a naughty school girl, and then she is beaten by an angry pimp “gyped” out of his money. Rightfully she is terrified by this man, who provides her with her first prostitution disappointment when he promises her $50 and then only pays her $15 before wrecking his car post-hand job. Hewitt is adventurous, showing this green child both seduced and disgusted by her new occupation. Shay is just innocent enough to think she won’t have to hook for long, but she’s smart enough to realize she can never go back to the life she had before.
Shay and Holly have never met before, but their destinies collide when Shay is almost hit by Holly’s hired cab. Holly offers Shay half her commission to pull a double’s act for a rich client, but by accepting the pair has no idea that what they thought would be a quick threesome would turn into witnessing a murder and running around the seediest parts of Sydney being chased by a rogue cop named Bennett (Stephen Phillips). Shit happens, people get shot, clothes are constantly removed (makes it easier to run?).
While the film’s marketing does promise a unique erotic thriller, the thriller portion is utterly run of the mill. Where X succeeds, however, is in the eroticism. Besides offering moments of female gaze and believable rough sex bordering on possessive, X provides an intimate look into the ambiguity of sex work. All too often films featuring a prostitute are either Disney-fied with the hooker cleaning up her act, or they follow used and worn prostitutes whom society has either forgotten or refuses to believe ever existed. Shay and Holly are young, beautiful, intelligent, and chose this life for their own reasons. They have autonomy and agency in their decisions, and those character traits make X wholly original and engaging. Hewitt is brave in creating two women who both enjoy sex but also understand that with sex comes power and consequences.
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