Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Movie Review: The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience *** ½
Directed By:
Steven Soderbergh.
Written By: Brian Koppelman & David Levien.
Starring: Sasha Grey (Chelsea), Chris Santos (Chris), Glenn Kenny (The Erotic Connoisseur), Timothy Davis (Tim), Mark Jacobson (Mark).

It has been 20 years since Steven Soderbergh made his big splash in American movies with sex, lies and videotape. In those two decades, Soderbergh has repeatedly proven himself to be one of the most experimental of major American filmmakers, going back and forth between blockbusters and indie movies and constantly experimenting in style. Consider just his last four movies before The Girlfriend Experience – Bubble an extremely low budget indie starring non professional actors in the Neo Realist tradition, The Good German starring two of the biggest stars in the world – George Clooney and Cate Blanchatt – in an ode to film noir Hollywood filmmaking of yesteryear, Ocean’s 13 a star studded, massive budgeted heist film, the third in a series, and Che, a four hour, two part non-traditional biopic of the controversial historical figure shot entirely in Spanish. Here is a filmmaker who is not afraid to try anything.

In some ways, The Girlfriend Experience is more like sex, lies and videotape than anything else Soderbergh has made since. It is a movie about a high priced prostitute named Chelsea (real life porn star Sasha Grey) and her relationships with several men. First and foremost among them is her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer, a profession Soderbergh stresses is more like prostitution than most realize. After all, are both of them committed to making people feel better about themselves? And watch how Chris works a client to get him to sign up for a larger package next time, stressing how good their relationship is. It is much the same way as Chelsea works her regular clients. Or watch how Chris gets talked into going to Vegas with a wealthy client and his friends, much the same way Chelsea is talked into going away for the weekend with one of hers. Both are not giving their real selves to their clients, but a version of themselves that the client wants. If they wanted the real you, according to Chelsea, they wouldn’t be paying. The oldest profession in the world, and one of the newest are, at least in Soderbergh’s world, pretty much the same thing.

In the world of The Girlfriend Experience, everyone is either a prostitute or a john, and everyone is a critic. For Chelsea, sex is her job, and her reviews on whether or not the clients come back for more. She fulfills a niche for them – she will be whatever she wants them to be. So she listens intently as they go on about the troubled economy, how to invest her money and giving her business tips. Then she fucks them. Their “relationship” while they are together is more intimate then you get with a street hooker, where it’s all about the sex. Some of these clients don’t even want to sleep with her, they just want to talk to her. Her job is to build up the illusion of a connection between the two of them, and sometimes the line between a pretend bond and a real one becomes blurry.

There is even a “professional” critic in the film, played by former Premiere magazine film critic Glenn Kenny as The Erotic Connoisseur, a man who runs a website where he “reviews” the high priced call girls the world over. A good review for him and your price goes up. A bad review can sting. He uses his position in order to get “freebies” from the girls, and when Chelsea resists, he becomes nasty. There is also a reporter (Mark Jacobson) who is interviewing Chelsea for a magazine piece he is doing, and wants to get to know the real her. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that you don’t need to understand the real Chelsea to understand what she does.

As with many of his films, Soderbergh plays with the chronology of events in The Girlfriend Experience, flashing back and forth in time to gradually reveal what is really going on in the movie. This is not just a stylistic choice, but it also serves the plot of the movie – it allows Soderbergh to place scenes that thematically linked, even if not chronologically linked, together in the movie.

Most of the performances in the movie are serviceable, with the exception of Sasha Grey who is unbelievably good as Chelsea. There is a fine line between porn star and prostitute, but what they have in common is that both need to build up an erotic delusion. It doesn’t matter if you’re not attracted to your john, or your co-star in a porn movie, you’re expected to fuck on demand, and make people believe you are enjoying it even if you’re not. So in a way, Grey is already half way to understanding Chelsea before the movie even starts. She is a gorgeous young woman, but her performance here goes well beyond her looks. While I have no idea if she would be capable of playing a different character – one far removed from her real life self – she is better here than any movie star would have been.

I love the fact that Soderbergh goes back and forth between big budget movies and low budget experimental films like The Girlfriend Experience. While I may not agree with every point Soderbergh is making in the film – or its worldview in general – The Girlfriend Experience is a fascinating experiment from one of our best filmmakers.

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