The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 10/26/09

There was a period, right after director Steven Soderbergh had released Schizopolis (1996), Out of Sight (1998), and The Limey (1999), that I thought he was the most under-rated director in Hollywood, reeking of promise.  Of course, that is when a great deal of the media picked up the same belief, not to mention Soderbergh himself.  Then his commerical rise to prominence began: Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), and his re-make of Ocean’s Eleven (2001).  And while I still liked his work, he was no secret, but quite the opposite, a Hollywood darling, with stars fawning over working with him like Julia Roberts (who got her Oscar for Brockovich) and George Clooney, who seems to have become his better-looking best pal.

And then I saw Full Frontal (2002), his first attempt in several years to make an “indie” film, but making an “indie” film with lots of celebrities slumming for him on the cheap so that he could shoot something less commercial and involve them in a project that “felt” different from their gilded movie sets.  And it wasn’t entirely wrong-minded, but it also was.

And after that, not Ocean’s Twelve (2004), nor Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), nor his re-make of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), nor nothing, had really made me want to watch another Soderbergh film for a long time.  And I hadn’t.

When The Girlfriend Experience came out earlier this year, it got a lot of positive buzz.  Yet again, Soderbergh was returning to his “indie roots”, making a film “on the cheap” by Hollywood standards, using none of his stable of nameable, bankable stars, and using a style that was non-linear and vaguely pseudo-documentary to tell the story of a high-priced call girl who specializes in creating a “girlfriend experience” with her dates, being interactive and interested and creating a pseudo relationship beyond the sex.  And I was intrigued.

The Girlfriend Experience is in essence more true to the spirit of independent filmmaking, not relying on stars or anything very commercial, but leaning on a more thoughtful subject matter and a more complicated approach to storytelling.  It’s non-linear enough that it takes quite a while to realize that there is not only a story arc, but that we’ve been glimpsing segments of the arc out of order already before it fully comes together.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is how contemporary it tries to be, keeping in topic with the 2008 election issues and a slant toward the financial present of the film’s creation.  There is much said in relationship to commodities, the economy, the marketplace, transposed through a lens of the relationship between Chelsea/Christine and her boyfriend.  They are two people trying to “make it” in New York.  Chelsea as a high-priced call girl, and her boyfriend, also in a job related to the human flesh, a physical trainer, who is striving to develop more of a career and a paycheck.  And Chelsea gets a lot of advice from her clients in passing, to invest in gold, how to manage her money, how to develop her career.

And there is the rub.  The other experience is the “girlfriend experience” which she fakes for pay, yet plays out in her regular life with her boyfriend.  But then again, she doesn’t.  She’s built a solid wall around herself, seems immensely emotionally detached all of the time, shows her boyfriend a complete lack of commitment, falling for a client because of some personality algorithm or astrological/numerological system in which she believes.  While not entirely so, in many ways she comes off as a cipher, a shallow or unknowable soul, whose depths are never registered.  And the relationship analysis, the commoditization of her relationships, the parallels in her boyfriend’s work, it’s all out there, but it’s not clear really, what Soderbergh thinks of it all.

What I think is both oddly strange and vaguely disturbing is that in casting porn actress Sasha Grey as Chelsea, there has been, at least in the marketing and critical reception, and perhaps in the casting as well, some sense of verity from a person who is a sex worker (though of a different sort), who carries the gravitas and “realism” of person.  And the thing about Grey is that she does make an impression in the film, her flat manner of speech, her simple pretty-ness if not beauty, and her blandly detached character are key to the power of the film.  But what does her other experience have to bring to that that another actress or even herself could have brought to the role without having experience as a sex worker?  Why does she carry more weight in this in other than projected ways?  Would you not be able to see the film and not need to know that she was a well-known porn actress?

And I think that this was my problem with the film (though on the outside of the film, not within the film itself), and I don’t know whether to attribute that to the marketing or perhaps the concept in casting her.  In the film itself, she is good, as a character, the character that she is, whether she was being herself or acting the emotionless, disconnected beauty.

But her character is a strong contrast to her boyfriend, who loves her and cares for her, in full knowledge of her career.  He is only hurt when she chooses some random guy as more important than him, showing that she, in a sense, is playing her role throughout her life with everyone.  Is there someone beneath the veneer?  And her boyfriend seems more sympathetic and genuine.  Is Soderbergh making some reference about femininity?  One of his characters consulting the boyfriend describes all women as “evil”, their “species”.  And while the boyfriend discounts this, he doesn’t raise a rhetorical argument.

The film is interesting, and it’s interesting as well to see Soderbergh making something not purely marketable.  It has a weird vibe of this sort of pseudo-experimental, off-beat, disjointedness, that is then intercut with some rather interesting music, some from street musicians, but giving a more produced sound to the soundtrack.  It’s an odd, mixed bag, with some vaguely troubling issues.  I’m interested in seeing The Informant! (2009), his latest film, which also received good reviews.  So, maybe my little lag from him is over.

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