By Zoe Kurland.
The line is always blurry between niceties and exploitation…. Though deeper exploration of themes of class, race, sex work, or, perhaps most importantly, the personas we craft to gain power, are sidelined in favor of frenetic editing.”
T. Arthur Cottam’s One Hour Outcall begins with a smattering of moments: a woman applies mascara in a mirror, money is placed in an envelope, high heels slink from a car door and settle on a sidewalk. As the scene proceeds, the high heels become ankle boots, then pumps, then high heels again. These alternating pairs of shoes belong to a young escort named Esmerelda (Natalie Ochoa), who goes to meet a middle-aged divorcee named Greg (William Norett) every Thursday night for a year. The film shifts non-linearly between these meetings, ping-ponging furiously between past, present and perhaps future? It’s hard to say. In one moment, a slap across the face is smash cut with the clinking of a glass; you’re not quite sure which came first, but it serves to show that the line is always blurry between niceties and exploitation. However, because we miss the linear build of Greg and Ana’s relationship, the shouting is empty and the emotion largely unearned. The stakes do not rise even half as much as the decibel level: voices get louder, barbs get harsher, chests are pounded upon and in one moment, an item is even thrown against the wall, only to mutely bounce off and hit the floor. What was probably just a regrettable piece of sound editing sums up One Hour Outcall in a nutshell: mindless escalation and no impact.
Films about escorts and clients often follow a somewhat familiar pattern. Whether one looks at Pretty Woman, American Gigolo, or even Klute, a client and an escort meet under whatever pretenses and vow that their relationship is all business. They get busy, and whilst entangled in the bedsheets, they become equally entangled in one another’s emotions. Regardless of whether or not a romance ensues, the big bad moral of the whole thing is that with enough intimacy, detachment turns into attachment, and business and pleasure unequivocally do not mix. Much to its credit, One Hour Outcall does not take the typical approach to this quandary; Esmerelda and Greg have little to no chemistry and seem rather duty-bound to carrying out their respective roles. If they develop any closeness, it seems more due to exposure than desire; they are both intensely guarded people, and the script offers only weak backstory in place of an explanation.
We learn that Esmerelda’s real name is actually Ana, and that she is a biochemistry major at a nearby college, while Greg’s professional life might have something to do with economics – a recurring banter bit has Ana constantly calling him “Math Guy” because he mentioned the word “percent.” This kind of dialogue aims to be something noirish and snappy, with Ana constantly teasing Greg about his “urbane” life, which he lives out of an apartment as nondescript and generic as a Holiday Inn. Besides the errant inscrutable painting on the wall, the only thing that Greg seems to own is a pretentious collection of books which Ana mocks, reading off the list of names with acrid glee: “Willy Shakespeare, Billy Faulkner, Eddie Conlon, and Lorrie Moore.” This, to me, was one of the more searing moments of the film, as it makes clear that Ana has her defenses primed against men who posture and attempts to gain power by infantilizing them, which in turn obscures her own inexperience. As such, Greg calls her “tough guy,” a moniker Ana seems to enjoy, as it convinces her that her performance is working.
I must give Ochoa credit for the accuracy with which she conveys a young woman desperately trying to appear self-assured. There are moments in which Ana’s flirtations come out with so much forced sensuality, I could not help but cringe. Luckily, the whole arrangement feels fairly low stakes, as neither Greg nor Ana seem to have too much invested in one another. Ana is little more than a conduit for Greg, a test dummy upon which he can practice empathy and care before having to show it to anyone else. This care comes in the form of questions about Ana’s life and ambitions, somewhat fatherly advice, and a gaudy watch (though we later learn he is capable of larger gifts when he wants to give them, a BMW, for one). Greg quite evidently wants to make up for past wrongs and sees Ana as some convoluted ticket to absolution.
“You wear [your guilt] like a gun or a prize,” says Ana.
“I’ve convinced myself by always being hard on myself, people can’t think that I’m being too easy on myself.” This is a statement perhaps deployed to engender sympathy in the viewer, but instead, it hardened my heart. Greg’s self-pity seems far greater than his guilt, and if anything, that leads him to go especially easy on himself when it comes to moral quandaries, or any real confrontation of his past.
The real loser is Ana, who is used in myriad ways, both by Greg, and, more broadly, by the film itself to make a vague point about hard work versus privilege. Ana often mentions her best friend, who is both “entitled and smug,” a sharp contrast to Ana who prioritizes her studies (we know this because she turns down a week-long vacation at the beach) and plans for her future. All Ana has by way of family is her abuela who is largely uncharacterized; in the one scene they share, the two split leftovers at a small kitchen table before Ana goes outside to study on the stairwell. Sadly, any deeper exploration of themes of class, race, sex work, or, perhaps most importantly, the personas we craft to gain power, are sidelined in favor of frenetic editing.
“I can’t abide anyone empathizing with me,” says Ana. Unfortunately, we don’t quite get the chance to.
Zoe Kurland is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in English from Columbia University. Her writing appears in Bright Lights Film Journal, COUNTERCLOCK Journal, The Nonconformist, and more.