Sylvie Verheyde’s ‘Sex Doll’ Is a Sex-Work Drama Minus the Male Gaze


Sex Doll’s lurid title suggests a Russ Meyer exploitation fest, but in truth the film offers a toned down, occasionally bland look at sex work. Prostitution has long been a cinematic fixture, and writer/director Sylvie Verheyde seeks to offset the unrealistic depictions by male directors by showing prostitution in a detached fashion.

Virginie (Hafsia Herzi), the protagonist, is first seen lying in bed with an impassive expression as an older businessman type thrusts and grunts unappealingly. Virginie gives an impression of blasé professionalism — she does her job, collects her money and doesn’t get emotionally involved. There’s only the briefest glimpse of nudity, and Virginie’s self-presentation is telling: She favors black clothes and thick, 1960s-style false eyelashes, her severe outfits suggesting a seductive but impenetrable armor.

Her world is soon shaken by Rupert (tattoo-covered male model Ash Stymest in his debut role), an enigmatic stranger with whom she starts an affair. His dozens of tattoos and unclear intentions project sleaze, and the businessmen Virginie beds for money, some of whom have physically abusive tendencies, are even sleazier. In the world of Sex Doll, men are not to be trusted.

For all that, Verheyde allows some sly humor. Virginie jerks off a man while the camera stays fixed on her bored face. In the next shot, she washes her hands — this is work, and it’s not titillating. The penultimate line may well serve as a pointed mission statement: Virginie turns to Rupert and asks, “Aren’t you tired of rescuing whores?” Sex Doll, flat though it may sometimes be, is shrewdly aware of the countless clichés surrounding sex work.

Sex Doll

Written and directed by Sylvie Verheyde

IFC Midnight

Opens February 10, IFC Center