[15 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Believe it or not, it’s been 20 years since a young independent filmmaker named Steven Soderbergh put the outsider genre on the map with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his stunning Golden Palm win at the Cannes Film Festival. Even more amazing is the fact that he turned such an arthouse award into such a stunning run of mainstream success. Sure, he’s crafted such commercial hits as Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and the Oceans franchise, but he always goes back to a more “personal” style of filmmaking, branching off and exploring the medium in efforts like Bubble, Full Frontal, and his most recent turn, The Girlfriend Experience. Shot on digital and budgeted at a mere $1.7 million, this calm character study stands in direct contrast with his last film—the big, bombastic, and epic biopic Che! To say the two films couldn’t be more different would be an understatement. To say they represent the competing facets of Soderbergh’s artistic temperament would be right on target.
Chelsea/Christine is a high priced call girl in Manhattan. It is October 2008 and there is only one thing on everyone’s mind—the economy. As Presidential politics play out in the background, our heroine feels the need to try and expand her clientele. So she contacts an unscrupulous blogger who promises her more options for a little carnal cache. In the meantime, Chelsea’s personal trainer boyfriend Chris is having a hard time himself. Not only is his customer base drying up, but he is growing uncomfortable with Chelsea’s career. When she comes home one day suggesting she spend the weekend with a john, Chris grows jealous. He argues that, if she leaves, she will come back to nothing. He will be gone. Their apartment will be gone. Their life together will be gone. Still, Chelsea believes this new screenwriter beau could be the answer to some of her more heartbreaking problems. He could also be just another man looking to reclaim his youth with her pay for play body.
Like a puzzle formed out of the fragments of one woman’s complicated existence, The Girlfriend Experience is a tone poem that takes its time seducing you. How you react to Soderbergh’s scattered approach and well-observed moments of human misfortune will ultimately determine what you think of the film’s effectiveness. It is highly repetitive, going over certain facts and social situations (the tanking economy circa Wall Street) in order to argue its ‘life as commerce’ point. And we do get the impression that money, as well as those capable of manipulating it, do indeed control the world. But there is much more to The Girlfriend Experience than love for sale. Indeed, what Soderbergh has created is the ultimate statement of dehumanization, of how what we do and why we do it undermines the actual fact of who we really are.
Actual porn star Sasha Grey essays Chelsea with the kind of anchored naiveté that keeps us wondering over her safety and her savings. She’s clearly capable of taking care of herself, but Soderbergh hints that the standard self esteem issues may be driving her to hedge bets she doesn’t have to wager on in the first place. There are moments when Grey is china doll frozen. There are other instances where her sexual warmth comes across in waves. One particularly uncomfortable scene has real life blogger Glenn Kenny playing suitcase pimp to Chelsea’s insecurity. All he wants is a con artist freebie. Her genuine desire to step beyond her current kept girl status makes the confrontation all the more upsetting. Oddly enough, when you look at it within such a peculiar supply and demand light, most of what The Girlfriend Experience has to say about relationships is repugnant.
Indeed, Soderbergh’s main message seems to be that we all trade on our individuality to be part of some perceived sense of community. We wheel and deal, deceive and depend, all to make sure that, in the end, the connections to our networks remains strong and steadfast. Chelsea runs many of her ideas by a close confidant (and fellow high class hooker) who reassures her when things appear dicey. Similarly, Chris plays all ends of the fitness game to his proposed advantage, even laying on the double talk to keep an angry club owner from thinking he’s disloyal. Together with the various salesmen who slip around the financial district and divvy up the suckers for one last attempt at betterment before falling off their considered career path, we see interpersonal want turned into private issue stock. Like watching a negotiation where the parties and the particulars are kept secret, The Girlfriend Experience thrives on such able ambiguity.
Of course, there will be those who find the lack of clarity distressing, who see the sunny shots of Manhattan gleaming like a Madison Avenue backdrop and argue that Soderbergh is simply exercising his quite capable muse. For them, the drop dead drollness of the Ocean‘s films fall comfortably into their own commercial niche. Moving outside it to something like Girlfriend would be like giving in to someone’s own unnecessary flights of fancy. Unfortunately, that’s looking at things backward. Soderbergh was never a full blown mainstream moviemaker. His initial efforts were all based in a strict independent ideal. It wasn’t until 1998’s Out of Sight that he dabbled in doing something more “straight”. Now, his Hollywood hits fund his more fevered dreams, and without said self indulgence we wouldn’t have a wonderful, evocative effort like The Girlfriend Experience.
Still, a slice of life is only as compelling as the existence being explored, and there is a certain insularity in watching upper class individuals haggle over commerce like diamond merchants sizing up carats, but leave it to the man who first taught us that sex could be incredibly complicated to do the same thing for its more mercenary components. By following a women who has turned prostitution into an upstanding profession, to watch her rationalize everything about a situation that many consider unconscionable, Soderbergh has once again opened up his creative canvas to paint a portrait few would dare attempt. The title here is the most misleading thing of all. This really isn’t a look at relationships. It’s the battle of the sexes with both sides unarmed and ill-prepared.