The documentary “Aroused” features interviews with 16 adult-film actresses, but it’s not a story about pornography. That’s according to photographer and filmmaker Deborah Anderson, who not only conducts the interviews and narrates the film, but also appears on camera, shooting the subjects for a new coffee-table book of nude portraiture.
What’s it about then? At least a third of this slight but mildly provocative film is about selling Anderson’s book. There’s lots of “making-of” footage showing Anderson as she coaxes the women into softening their eyes for the camera — presumably because the book is meant to reveal a more vulnerable humanity than one typically associates with hard-core sex performers. In other words, it’s art, not porn. Ironically, this kind of emotional exposure appears to be a tough assignment for a lot of these actresses, most of whom seem way too young — in their 20s, for the most part — to be so guarded. When a couple of them shed tears toward the end, it’s surprisingly moving. The tears themselves, however, aren’t all that shocking.
The women, all of whom appear to use stage names, talk more or less candidly about lives that often include early sexual initiation and promiscuity, STDs and drug use, family disapproval, ageism, cosmetic surgery, objectification and, at least in one instance, behavior that, by most conventional standards of decency, is pretty revolting. Despite talk of empowerment, the film acknowledges the dark side of an industry that takes a toll on its practitioners, despite paying big bucks.
But what exactly is that toll?
Interestingly, the one person who speaks most bluntly about this is not an actress, but the adult-film talent agent Fran Amidor, a lively and matronly woman who opines at one point that “every time someone does a [sex] scene in front of a camera, a little bit of their soul disappears.”
Ouch. It’s no wonder that people outside the adult-film world are referred to as “civilians” by those inside it. This is a world that comes across, at times, as a war zone, inhabited by combatants who are scarred in invisible ways.
Anderson’s camera, however, is more probing than her questions, which strike only glancing blows. If so many of these women went into the business for the money, as they say, why is the film so squeamish about it? Exactly how much does a porn star make anyway?
The most interesting questions never get raised, let alone answered. I would have loved to have heard a psychologist, for instance, discuss the conflicted relationship that many of us “civilians” have with sex in the first place. It’s a relationship embodied in the twin tattoos on the arms of the actress called Asphyxia Noir, which read “Beauty” and “Filth.”
Too many times, “Aroused” arouses curiosity without really satisfying it. One giant paradox hangs in the air at the end. Despite a lot of post-feminist talk about taking back their sexuality, is it really possible to “own” something after you’ve sold it?
Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains nudity, explicit discussion of sex and some obscenity.
In English and some French with subtitles.