Movie review by Greg Carlson
Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” is as lean and brutal as its chief attraction Sasha Grey, the young starlet whose appearances in more than 150 porn videos lend the movie an air of authenticity – real or imagined – to the story of a high-priced call girl working in NYC during the midst of the current economic collapse. Adding another chapter to the tale of Soderbergh’s fascinating balancing act that alternates between big budget Hollywood fare like the “Ocean’s 11” series and the modestly priced, intimate digital features that offer a different kind of introspective artistry, “The Girlfriend Experience” is the most successful of the director’s smaller scale projects.
Covering five days in the life of Chelsea (Grey), “The Girlfriend Experience” is presented out of chronological sequence, and the editing technique parallels the fractured, revolving door nature of the central character’s rigidly compartmentalized life, especially as it relates to Chelsea’s challenging task of maintaining a relationship with her live-in boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos). The inevitability of Chelsea and Chris fighting over her profession is a foregone conclusion, despite the suggestion that an agreement has been reached some months prior to the period of time glimpsed in the movie. Soderbergh does not take full advantage of the opportunity to let us see a more vulnerable, more human side of Chelsea. Perhaps he just refuses.
Grey’s placid inscrutability might arguably be called an inability to act, but her persona and the manner in which she projects it complement Soderbergh’s considerations of a time and place in society when everything is branded and commodified. When Chelsea is not engaging her wealthy clients in the nuanced small talk of perfectly feigned interest that gives the movie its title, she is seen going over her books and meeting with web designers who might be able to help her refine the business model that she uses to sell herself as a sophisticated total package. In one clever scene, real life film critic Glenn Kenny plays the Erotic Connoisseur, a reptilian blogger whose notions of supply and demand suggest a sleazy quid pro quo.
Soderbergh takes less interest in the emotional lives of Chelsea and Chris than he does in presenting the ways in which the escort and the personal trainer both cater to a particular line of work that depends on serving a clientele in a manner that creates an illusion of intimacy. Some viewers may find the comparisons a bit too obvious, but Soderbergh is confident enough in his filmmaking gifts to comment on a variety of issues swirling around the October 2008, pre-presidential election milieu. Soderbergh’s conflation of capitalism and prostitution is more wryly raised eyebrow than sourpuss jeremiad, and the accompanying tone prevents the viewer from becoming dispirited.
Like “Bubble,” “The Girlfriend Experience” was made available as a pay-per-view video download at the same time it was being presented theatrically, and while the tactic has made some filmmakers nervous, Soderbergh has seemingly embraced a level of flexibility that might well become more and more necessary as audiences expect to see content on their own terms and timelines. Whether you see it in the theatre or at home, “The Girlfriend Experience” is well worth a look.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/29/09.