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The Best Movies About Sex Work

Here's a handy guide to help navigate the wealth of sex work-centric films Hollywood has to offer.

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Every one of Charity's experiences is punctuated and validated by her friends. They celebrate her run-in with a celebrity, encourage her to get over a sleazebag boyfriend, and cheer her engagement to a more honorable man. This is sex work bonding at its best. The girls sing about leaving the life but never consider leaving one another. The ending is unexpectedly sad, although—spoiler alert!—Charity and her friends actually make it out alive.

Best Choice For Dissuading Potential Prostitutes: Claire Dolan

Claire (Katrin Cartlidge) works in Manhattan as an indentured call girl. Her suit-wearing, cat-killing pimp knew Claire and her family when they still lived in Ireland and is now the keeper of Claire's apparently bottomless debt, which he compounds with unsolicited additions to her mother's nursing home amenities. Once her mother dies, Claire decides it's time to leave the life, but she does so with a sense of pre-determined defeat. She's left bereft and menaced at every turn, abandoned by women and harassed by men, strangers even more so than clients.

The sex in Claire Dolan is ugly, entirely physical and devoid of desire. In one particularly horrible scene, a client leads Claire to believe he's being empathetic before saying. "There are a lot of people out there who do things that tear them up, that they hate." He pushes himself against her: "Just try not to think about it." Her clients are not necessarily cruel, just brutally apathetic, a product of the amoral business world in which they operate. (Never before have New York's skyscrapers looked so malevolent.) Eventually Claire falls in love with a taxi driver who becomes consumed with her situation, to their mutual detriment. The film is dark and sobering without being moralistic or over the top.

Best Screenplay: Nathalie

When Catherine (Fanny Ardant) discovers her husband Bernard's (Gerard Depardieu) past infidelities, she decides to orchestrate one through the hire of brothel worker Marlene (Emmanuelle Beart). Catherine instructs Marlene on where Bernard can be found and what details she should fabricate in order to keep him interested, including her name: Nathalie. Marlene meets with Catherine after every encounter, sometimes even in the disheveled hotel room itself, to collect her money and share every sordid detail.

Although her husband is the direct recipient of the sex, Catherine is the john. She eventually even sets Marlene up in an apartment, which Marlene claims makes Bernard jealous ("He thought he had a rival") and routinely threatens to end the business arrangement, although she never does. (When Catherine expresses disgust over the details of one particular meeting, Marlene replies, "It can't always get you wet.") The film is a meticulous meditation on the bizarre ways we bait the people we love. Marlene lets Catherine smell the face cream she used to give Bernard a hand job; Catherine buys the cream, wears it to bed, and then pushes Bernard away when he tries to touch her. The perfect soundtrack includes Joy Division, Leonard Cohen, and early Goldfrapp.

Best Love Story: Priceless (Hors de prix)

It's hard for sex worker relationships to work in real life but even harder for them to work on screen. While Hollywood writers so routinely rely on rescue storylines as the basis for romance, the French manage a more subtle approach in this comedy starring Amelie's Audrey Tatou as Irene. Irene is a professional sugar baby, one who moves from old man to older man, collecting piles of designer goods but not much else. The media's understanding of "high class" escorts is taken to its logical end here. Since Irene's paid only in expensive dinners, vacations, and cocktail dresses—items that don't last or can be easily taken away—she's left destitute when her current client decides to lock her out of their hotel room.

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