Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review - The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience finds Steven Soderbergh in experimental mode once again, and that's a good place for him to be. I always tend to think he's at his most enjoyable when he has the freedom to play around with style and narrative, and this low-budget drama is the perfect way for the director to get back into his groove after the disappointment of his epic Che. The Girlfriend Experience operates on a much smaller scale than that double-bill, focusing on an eventful week in the life of a high-price New York prostitute. For $2,000 an hour, Chelsea (played by porn star Sasha Grey) will offer her clients a "girlfriend experience", which is as much about intimacy as it is about sex. In the film's opening sequence, we see her going to dinner and a movie with a gentleman, before returning to his hotel room, where they share a glass of wine and kiss on the couch. By all appearances, they look like a happy couple, and it's only in the morning that the true nature of their relationship is exposed, when the client hands Chelsea her payment.

Soderbergh has always had a fairly detached and intellectual approach to sex in his films – neither Sex, Lies and Videotape or Full Frontal have the kind of explicit content their titles might suggest – and in The Girlfriend Experience he is again interested in the act only as a means to explore wider ideas. Chief among these is the notion that life is little more than a series of transaction and negotiations, particularly for those who operate in the world Chelsea inhabits. Almost every conversation in the film takes this form, from the interviewer (journalist Marc Jacobson) who wants Chelsea to reveal more about herself than she's comfortable with, to the sleazy internet "erotic connoisseur" (a very funny cameo from film critic Glenn Kenny) who offers her a great review that would raise her profile, if she gives him a free trial of the goods. Even Chelsea's own relationship with her boyfriend (Chris Santos) is based on negotiation, with him having reluctantly accepted her choice of career, as long as she adheres to a number of ground rules.

By the end of the film, Chelsea will have broken one of those rules by allowing herself to get emotionally close to a client, and this trade-off between offering an intimate experience while remaining professionally detached is the film's most intriguing dilemma. After every encounter, Chelsea details the date in her diary, entries we hear in voiceover, with any sexual contact being catalogued in the same flat, clinical style as an account of the shoes she was wearing, or the food they ate. For Chelsea, this is strictly business, but for the men she meets, there's a real hunger for a sense of closeness, so much so that sometimes they won't even have sex, just being with Chelsea appears to be enough. There's an intriguing scene when Chelsea spots a former client out on the town with a new girl, and her expression is hard to read; is she concerned by the new competition, is she curious about their arrangement, or is she hurt by the snub? Her behaviour later, when she foolishly believes the promises of a married screenwriter, suggests she isn't as adept at avoiding the entanglements of intimacy as she thinks she is.

The Girlfriend Experience has been shot by Soderbergh in a stylish manner, and has been edited together in a non-chronological fashion that allows us to experience the film on a moment-by-moment basis rather than as a straightforward narrative arc. In line with his previous experiments Bubble and Full Frontal, much of the dialogue is improvised, and given the backdrop of the financial crisis and forthcoming election (the film was shot in October 2008), much of this dialogue revolves around money, with many of Chelsea's clients offering her investments tips during their dates (is that what counts as pillow talk these days?). To be honest, I grew tired of the endless financial chatter after a while, but I guess that's the currency that makes Chelsea's world go round, and even if the men she meets aren't always particularly engaging, Sasha Grey remains hugely watchable in the lead role. Some might question the limited emotional expressiveness of her performance, but Chelsea needs to be something of a blank canvas, for her clients to project their own fantasies onto, and Grey has an assurance and screen presence that always holds the audience's attention. It remains to be seen whether she can cross over successfully from the world of porn into the mainstream, but right now The Girlfriend Experience is a fine calling card.

Read my interview with Sasha Grey here.