VIDEO: The trailer for The Girlfriend Experience
Comparing prostitution with capitalism is about as old as the oldest profession itself. And the movies have long recognized the similarity between their industry and that other trade that dispenses pleasure for cash. So Steven Soderbergh is exploring nothing new in his slick portrait of a high-priced New York City call girl and her juggling of clients, ambitions, and romance as the economy crashes and the 2008 presidential candidates campaign.
The Girlfriend Experience | Directed by Steven Soderbergh | Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien | with Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Marc Jacobson, Peter Izzo, Timothy J. Cox, David Levien, Timothy Davis, Jeff Grossman, Ted Jessup, Bridget Storm, and Glenn Kenny | Magnolia Pictures | 77 minutes
Interview: Sasha Grey. By Peter Keough.
What Soderbergh has created is a movie about how the trick-turning art reflects our current culture and economy, and how it's adapted to the technological advances in the media that propagate it. That includes the HD digital process, RED1, that Soderbergh is using; it offers the kind of inexpensive naturalistic immediacy and visual quality and freedom to improvise that the Godard of the '60s could only dream of. Not that The GirlfriendExperience rises to the level of Godard's Vivre sa vie, but it does provoke a host of issues that, wisely, it makes no attempt to resolve.
The first conclusion you draw from this film is that they don't make hookers like Anna Karina's Nana any more. Chelsea (real-life porn star Sasha Grey) is shown with a client who takes her to a movie (it sounds like Man on Wire), which they then discuss while sipping wine at a pricy dinner. When they do arrive at his penthouse, he's unloading his anxieties about business on her. She listens dutifully, with the occasional bland reassuring comment or suggestion, as they undress. The sex is almost an afterthought. This is the Girlfriend Experience.
Meanwhile, Chelsea, real name Christine, is having her own Boyfriend Experience with Chris (Chris Santos), who also works in a service capacity — he's a personal trainer. Chris doesn't mind Christine's bartering her body and soul to clients as long as she doesn't take the work home with her — or leave home for too long with her work. After all, he, too, must give a little of himself to maintain his clients, especially in these tough times, and he ponders taking off with a bunch of them on a private jet for Vegas.
In the end he does. Recurrent flashforwards to the trip, with the guys jabbering about sex and the bailout and Obama, jut into the narrative, giving the film the time-jumpy structure of Soderbergh's The Limey. The excursion appears to be Chris's reaction to Christine's having taken a more than professional interest in a married screenwriter (played, in a twisted bit of reflexivity, by Experience's co-screenwriter, David Levien). This lapse into genuine emotion takes Chelsea/Christine briefly out of her hermetically sealed persona, away from the suffocating litany of upscale bars, apartments, restaurants, and limos with their shiny surfaces and artificial lighting and endless talk about money.
But there's no escape from being a product, and to stay viable, a product needs promotion. Chelsea accepts an offer from "The Erotic Connoisseur" (film critic Glenn Kenny), who operates a Web site that critiques call girls. To do so, of course, he must have a free sample. His review is unkind and, from what we see of Chelsea (and Grey) in the film, on the money — the comment "lack of affect" is especially accurate. Kenny is hilariously wry and disgusting. Sour grapes for the tough reviews of Soderbergh's Bubble? Everyone may not be a critic in this movie, but everyone is a whore.