Although the title character of Cheyenne Picardo's film Remedy is a young woman working in a low-end dungeon in New York, the movie is less about sex work per se than it is about someone working a shitty job. It's about work, rather than sex, and that's something that a lot of people will miss.
The truth is that there will never be honest discussion about sex work until we're willing to have an honest discussion about work itself and what it's like for most people in this country. All the pieties about the soul-deadening, exploitative nature of sex work that media wonks recycle over and over neatly sidestep the fact that that's what work is for most people in 21st-century America, whether they're punching the clock at WalMart or in an NYC dungeon. The last thirty years have not only represented a decline in average wages for most Americans, but an increase in how much abuse workers are expected to take in order to pick up their paycheck at the end of the week. For some, work might still be a path to respect and financial security. But for most of us, the reality is unpayable debts, bad credit, and perpetual unemployment or underemployment.
I've never done sex work, but I know the bleak, exhausted expression that Kira Davies wears throughout much of the film. I've seen it many times in the mirror, coming home from some shitty temp gig doing data entry, telemarketing, filing, legal proofreading, or whatever equally thankless corporate hackwork I was doing to pay the bills.
Tackling the day-to-day grind of sex work means walking a really narrow line, and for the most part, director Cheyenne Picardo navigates it deftly. It's not that we never see professional domination portrayed in the media. It's that we never see it done well. Sex workers are depicted as figures of tragedy or titillation (or both), and it's very hard to make audiences look beyond those two types, no matter how well-crafted your script or how expert your actors. There are definitely going to be those who see Remedy as a cautionary tale about a young woman losing herself in sex work. But that reduces Remedy's story to cheap melodrama and misses the point entirely. Remedy isn't the movie that you'd show someone to sell them on the idea of becoming a pro domme, but neither is it a morality tale about the dangers of kink, professional or otherwise.
We never learn Remedy's civilian name; the movie jumps almost immediately into the interview process and her introduction to her co-workers. From there on, almost the entire film takes place either waiting for clients or in session. It actually has the basic structure of a porn film: a series of sex scenarios tied together with brief interludes of the house workers bullshitting in the front room, or Remedy riding the subway home. Unlike a porn film, the scenes aren't hot, and they're not intended to be. Their moods range from banal to disturbing; Remedy's very first session made me cringe and think nostalgically for the nice, comforting vision of dentistry depicted in the torture scene of Marathon Man.
Kira Davies is one of those actors who's extremely expressive even when her face is perfectly motionless. The film as a whole is plotless, moving from one client to another, and much of the drama plays out on Remedy's face instead of through dialogue or action. During her job interview, she clearly identifies herself as a masochist and a sub in private life, but in the dungeon, she looks increasingly overwhelmed and out of her depth.
The fulcrum in her development is a single client who comes in about halfway through the movie, an impeccably dressed corporate type, who at first does everything right. He greets her politely, and asks what she likes and doesn't like. He's very clear about negotiating limits, and when she says that she doesn't do extreme humiliation, he's agreeable: "Okay. We won't do any humiliation if it makes you uncomfortable. We'll just do a light session." His introduction is an exemplary demonstration of how to to treat an entertainer — or for that matter, a waitress, a store clerk, or a maid — with courtesy, dignity and respect.
The problem is that when the scene starts, he doesn't stick by the rules. The entire scene is humiliation, although there are no dog bowls. Looking at the dress she's put on, he says in a tense, angry voice, "You said that you'd wear something that I liked. You look cheap." There's little physical pain in the scene that follows, but every word is angry and contemptuous, designed to break her down and let her know that she's doing everything wrong. When she hesitates obeying a command to lick his nipple, he asks, "This makes you uncomfortable, huh?" For a moment, his voice softens, like he's retreading from the fantasy. Remedy nods and replies, "Yeah." "Who are you kidding?" the client says, his voice harsh again. "You're a whore."
I have a hard time watching the scene. It hits very visceral buttons for me, and I admit that it's difficult to step back and look at it with enough critical distance to distinguish what I feel about it from what the character of Remedy is feeling, or what Cheyenne Picardo is meaning to say. I like depictions of BDSM best when there's a clear distinction between the sexual fantasy and everyday reality. The cruelty and contempt that the client displays is just too real in my history for me to step aside and put it neatly in the box labeled "kinky play." It's one thing to have odd fetishes like dental play; the disturbing part of the client's behavior is that it's so very, very mundane and everyday. Also, the fear of being told that I'm a fuckup or a failure is probably my most pervasive, so it is very, very easy for me to substitute myself for Remedy in that scene. It's hard to avoid, actually.
The effect that the session has on Remedy is that she begins to show signs of PTSD. There are recurring flashbacks of the client through the rest of the movie, and she visibly dissociates during other sessions, with her trauma becoming more intense towards the conclusion.
Formally speaking, this storyline could fit neatly into any number of prohibitionist tracts. And if you come to it wanting to see that story, you will. But as unpleasant as the businessman and some of the other clients are, they're not Remedy's real problem. Her real problem is that once she leaves the session, she's alone. Her boss is terse and rarely looks away from the computer screen at her desk; her connections with her co-workers at the house are limited to banter and gossip about clients; and just acknowledging her job outside of work would get her shunned. When she finally has a breakdown and locks herself in the bathroom sobbing, the only response by her boss is to chastise her from the other side of the door and tell her that she's lucky that the client didn't ask for his money back.
And that's what I mean about needing an honest discussion about work before we're able to talk about sex work. If you see sex workers as exotic others, Remedy's story is the inevitable fate of a fallen woman. But a lot of people in fast-food restaurants, law offices, and web startups wind up sobbing in the bathroom, and for very similar reasons. Emotional abuse and low wages have become institutionalized in the American workplace as the legal protections that once existed have been written out of existence or become unenforceable. I've known people who burned out on sex work because of the very things that Remedy faces, but I've also known people who kept at it precisely because it gave them the ability to say "No" to abusive customers or bosses that they didn't have when working behind the counter at a department store. In the end, Remedy's situation isn't sensational or exotic; her story is the story of all of us who have clenched our teeth to get through one more day at a shitty job.
Find out more about Remedy at the film's website.