Girlfriend Experience, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/22/09 14:00:00
Whether or not you should go to see “The Girlfriend Experience,” the latest work from the always eclectic and seemingly inexhaustible Steven Soderbergh following a few days in the life of a high-priced prostitute played by the equally inexhaustible adult film star Sasha Grey in her mainstream debut, depends to a large extent on what kind of movie that you think you are going to be seeing once you plunk down your money at the ticket window. If you are a fan of Grey’s previous work in such classics as “Sasha Grey’s Anatomy” and “Face Invaders” and are simply looking for more of the same, you will be very disappointed since the amount of nudity and sexual activity on display here is brief and never comes close to threatening the film’s “R” rating. On the other hand, if you are going into it expecting to see one of Soderbergh’s slick exercises in straightforward commercial filmmaking, you will also come away disappointed as this is one of those ultra-low-budget and commercially marginal quickie projects that he undertakes from time to time as a way of rejuvenating his creative process after spending long periods of time on those other behemoths--this one following on the heels of the extra-lavish “Ocean’s Thirteen” and his massive two-part Che Guevara biopic. However, if you are in the mood for a fascinating chamber piece that simultaneously serves as a stylistic homage to the early works of Jean-Luc Godard, a snapshot of a capitalistic society taken right at the moment when it is beginning to crumble from the weight of its own excesses and a penetrating character study of a character for whom any penetration, emotional and otherwise, comes at a hefty price--and after the likes of such noisy and stupid gumdrops as “Wolverine,” “Angels & Demons” and “Terminator Salvation,” Lord knows I was--there is a very good chance that you will find it to be the most fascinating and provocative work that he has done in years.Set during the fall of 2008, the film stars Grey as Chelsea, a high-end call girl whose clientele consists almost entirely of wealthy Manhattan high rollers. Chelsea’s specialty is what is referred to as “the girlfriend experience”; along with the sex, she provides other considerations (ranging from hugs and open-mouthed kisses to dinner conversation) to facilitate the illusion that she and her client are a genuine couple out on a genuine date--a great comfort for those who would like to maintain the illusion of human interaction but have neither the time, inclination or ability to do it in real life. However, the key word there is “illusion” because for Chelsea, sex is just another commodity to be bought and sold and it goes no further than that--when she jots down the details of her various trysts in her diary, her obsessive detailing of the expensive clothes that were worn and the fancy meals that were consumed suggests Patrick Bateman more than it does Holly Golightly--and the only time that she really seems to come alive during these encounters in when she asks her ersatz suitors for financial advice. (Since it takes place during the early days of our current financial crisis, what they have to offer her in that regard is bleak.). In fact, Chelsea is so successful in compartmentalizing this aspect of her life that she has been able to maintain a long-running relationship with Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who not only accepts what she does for a living--what she does is only a job that doesn’t really mean anything--but even takes a page from her book in regards to his own career by trying to create the illusion of a genuine relationship with his own clients in the hopes of convincing them to spend the big bucks on a larger package of training sessions.
Although our first glimpses of Chelsea present us with someone whose entire life is essentially devoted to marketing herself as a commodity--we see her planning an elaborate website and submitting to an interview with a reporter (Mark Jacobson) in order to further the reach of her brand (though she shuts him down whenever the questions even threaten to get personal) and dreams of one day owning the kind of sleek and chic boutique that she herself frequently shops in--a chance encounter on the street with a regular client in the company of the hot new girl on the street rattles her enough to reveal some chinks in her façade. In response to this, she tries to boost her image further by agreeing to a meeting of the minds, as it were, with The Erotic Connoisseur (former “Premiere” film critic Glenn Kenny), a sleazy website operator who reviews the performances, as it were, of local escorts and who promises that a good review from him can mean a great increase in bookings. When that plan goes awry, she is left feeling something that she presumably hasn’t experienced for a long time--a sense of vulnerability--and when she seems to make a real connection with a new client that she has barely met, she finds herself perfectly willing to cast all of her rules aside and go off with him for the first weekend of what she believes will be the rest of their life together. Needless to say, Chris isn’t quite as accommodating to this particular development and while he was kind and supportive to her in regards to her qualms about her perceived competition, he takes this opportunity to offer a harsh appraisal of what he is convinced is about to happen to her if she decides to leave. And yet, Chelsea is still moved to leave but as we learned from the tragic tale of Nana in Godard’s “Vivre sa Vie,” a person who has spent a lifetime trying to keep people at a distance is not always the best judge of character when they suddenly decide to let someone in.
Since making his debut exactly twenty years ago with the landmark “sex, lies and videotape,” Steven Soderbergh has carved out one of the most willfully eclectic filmographies of any major American director working today. He has achieved this not only moving effortlessly from large-scale studio exercises (such as “Out of Sight,” “Erin Brockovich” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” series) to the commercially dubious projects that he is allowed to make in exchange for doing those bigger films (including “Solaris,” “The Good German” and “Che”) to the micro-budget experimental projects (like “Schizopolis” and “Bubble”) that he sometimes undertakes simply to challenge himself as an artist from time to time but by making the best of them feel like unique and personal works of artistic expression regardless of their provenance. Although he didn’t actually write the screenplay for “The Girlfriend Experience”--those duties went to David Levian & Brian Koppelman, with whom Soderbergh previously collaborated on “Ocean’s Thirteen,” a film whose casual pursuit of enormous sums of money is thoroughly rebuked here--his connection with the material is so direct and strong that he might as well have written it. Most obviously, one could read the entire film as an autobiographical exploration of his entire career as a filmmaker who cruises from one project to another and the subplot with the escort reviewer could stand in for his occasionally contentious relationships with a critical community that loudly complains that he is a sell-out when he does an unabashedly populist film and complains just as loudly when he immediately shifts gears and dares to do something a little more esoteric.
It is almost too easy to draw this kind of parallel, such as pointing out the similarities between the epic pan that Chelsea receives from her critic and the one that Soderbergh received at Cannes last year from “Variety” regarding “Che” that helped to kill its chances at box-office success even before it was released. From a thematic standpoint, for example, it could almost serve as a quasi-sequel to the aforementioned “sex, lies and videotape” in the way that it illustrates that while the technologies that people may deploy in order to achieve a certain level of emotional detachment with the world with others may have changed over time (the clunky camcorders of the summer of ‘89 have now been replaced with pre-paid cell phones and the internet), the virtual impossibility of achieving that goal remains the same. From a directorial standpoint, he does fascinating things as well throughout--he recounts the story in the deliberately fractured style that he used in “Out of Sight” and “The Limey” that adds an extra level of intrigue to the proceedings without ever becoming too distracting. Adding to the personal feeling that permeates the film is Soderbergh’s contributions as cinematographer (as usual, he shot the film under the name of Peter Andrews)--by shooting most of his scenes from a distance using telephoto lenses, he quietly but definitively underlines the distance from the world that she believes that she has created for herself.
Of course, ever since the project went into production last fall, the vast majority of the publicity surrounding “The Girlfriend Experience” has revolved around Soderbergh’s decision to cast porn starlet Sasha Grey in the lead--although she is hardly the first adult film performer to attempt to make the jump to mainstream filmmaking, she is easily the most high-profile example to come along since Marilyn Chambers took on the lead role in David Cronenberg’s 1977 horror classic “Rabid.” (Of course, there was always Jenna Jameson’s turn in the deathless “Zombie Strippers,” but I won’t mention it if you won’t.) I can’t say that I am especially familiar with her oeuvre to date (though I must add that, based on the brief clips that I have seen, the porn parody “This Ain’t Star Trek XXX!” looks infinitely more interesting than the current “Star Trek” movie) and I can’t say for sure what was behind Soderbergh’s decision to hire her in the first place. However, having seen her go through her paces here, I can say that Soderbergh’s instincts were strong because her performance is as strong and sure as any I have seen so far this year--if you didn‘t know her background (and the relentless media focus on her in the last couple of months have made sure that isn‘t possible), you would be sitting in your seat wondering where Soderbergh found such a fascinating unknown actress. She is sexy, to be sure, and has undeniable charisma as well but what is more important is that she captures the contradictory character of Chelsea--a tough and impassive outer shell with little bits of vulnerability looking to get out--with such deftness and subtlety that I would be hard-pressed to name another “real” actress who could have played it as well as she does.If you have never before seen one of Steven Soderbergh’s small-scale chamber pieces before, “The Girlfriend Experience” may strike you as somewhat baffling--it doesn’t play by the rules of conventional cinema and its often-chilly tone may seem a bit off-putting to viewers who doggedly insist that every character in a movie, outside of the obvious villain of the piece, must be conventionally likable. That said, while it may be lacking in those departments, it makes up for that by providing audiences with a fascinating new screen presence, a gifted filmmaker who is still willing and able to challenge himself by flexing his artistic muscles, some very funny moments as well as some surprisingly touching ones, some thoughtful notions about the times that we are currently living in and a final shot that manages to simultaneously be deeply moving, highly erotic and as fascinatingly oblique as the closing shot of “2001.” If such things sound as though they are up your alley, then you will most likely agree with me that “The Girlfriend Experience” is the first must-see film of the summer. If not, what can I say--maybe you are the type that actually deserves the likes of “Terminator Salvation.”
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