The Girlfriend Experience
One of the more courageous and challenging films to come out this year, and the fact that it's Soderbergh’s can give us all hope.


24 April 2010

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Plot summary

A drama set in the days leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, and centered on a high-end Manhattan call girl meeting the challenges of her boyfriend, her clients, and her work.

An odd beast, Steven Soderbergh; an odd, Janus-faced movie beast.  An Oscar-winning director (nominated twice in the same year—a feat only equalled once before, in 1938, by Michael Curtiz, who didn’t win) who pumps out the mall-pleasers like Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13 (though the mall was, apparently, less pleased with 12), Out of Sight, and—let’s face it—Erin Brockovich.  He also has a doppelganger, his Imp of the Perverse, that turns out uncompromising, indie fare like Schizopolis, the brilliant Full Frontal, and the even more brilliant Bubble.  But it isn’t a case of Robert Altman Syndrome (a director, God rest his soul, seemingly bent on immolating his career and repeatedly swallowing a grenade—like Prêt-à-Porter after The Player and Short Cuts; like The Company after Gosford Park; or like Popeye after a string of some of the best American movies made in Troubled Golden Age, including McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville. The bigger the hit, the bigger the follow-up self-aimed torpedo, like he was morbidly phobic about stratospheric success).  No; Soderbergh actually seems like two different directors.  In this same year he gives us The Informant! (a Matt Damon-starring ‘Based On A True Story’ about corporate, environmental corruption—or Erin Brockovich II (I’m guessing—I haven’t seen it) and The Girlfriend Experience.  The latter is deep within indie territory and—in the true indie spirit—the film explores difficult, inhospitable terrain like unsympathetic characters and icky commercial sex with smelly men.

The Girlfriend Experience is an episodic tale of two climbers in New York, Chris and Chelsea, who will do anything to get a hold of the big apple, be it hawking one’s own line of sportswear (Chris) or going on a sex-junket to whore oneself to industrialists in Dubai (Chelsea).  It is a story about people that don’t really have anything in common, don’t really seem to like each other very much, and are breaking up. We think. The narrative is disjointed, fractured, non-linear. There seems to be little connection between Chris and Chelsea except in a self-gratifying way. They’re fine examples of their respective sexes and can service each other, basically.  He is a personal trainer, making one’s physicality a commodity, with a price tag.  He jets off to Vegas with a client with little motive other than climbing a rung or two socially and the possibilities of new vistas—and clients—to sell to. She’s a call girl who is trying to market herself for the high-end sophisticate market, offering ‘the girlfriend experience’.  We don’t really care about the couple as they both just seem hungry, like reptiles are hungry, and are often dwarfed by what they are seeking to consume.  Soderbergh helps us not care about them, keeping the camera distant and the focal length short.  Often the leads are ignored in lieu of foreground, inconsequential detail and kept underlit and out of focus.

Chris and Chelsea are played by relative newcomers, Chris Santos and Sasha Grey (well, newcomers to movies that can be advertised in a family newspaper.  Ms. Grey is actually the veteran of over a hundred films, including—to scrape the surface—Gang Bang My Face, Teenage Anal Princess 5, and Tight Teen Twats.  Oh, and Cum Fart Cocktails.  And Swallow My Children, Slam it! In a Slut, Blow Me Sandwich 11, Buttman’s Stretch Class 2.  Not to mention Ass Eaters Unanimous).

Permeating the lack of plot, informing the characters, informing all the actions and encounters, is a sense of consumption, competitive consumption. The credit crisis is a motif that runs through the film and which only heightens the furious need to get things, to eat things, to have sex with things, that already permeates American culture.  The characters are desperately trying to sell whatever they can, however they can, to be part of this cycle. And Chelsea’s clients are all very pointedly buying merchandise—she markets a bespoke product and keeps ledger of what she was wearing, what they did, though not for salacious reason, but perfunctorily, reducing passion to accountant’s ledger. Chelsea is a cipher and brilliantly Soderbergh has her, in nearly every scene, with nearly every character, eating.  When she’s not between searching for web designers to help her sell herself and negotiating for good reviews with sex-industry bloggers.

The Girlfriend Experience is one of the more courageous and challenging films to come out this year, and the fact that it’s Soderbergh’s can give us all hope.  He dares to make movies that broach uncomfortable terrain and explore new technical possibilities of aesthetic expression and not just placate and sedate us with crowd-pleasing romps (that is, when he’s not making entertaining romps).  How many directors dare to make cold films, films where we don’t really like the characters, like Five Easy Pieces or his own Bubble.  This is movie about ideas, about uncomfortable truths, not soporific fantasy or feel-good delusions.