Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience ***

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Peter Zizzo

Steven Soderbergh's latest hi-def, low budget experiment takes us inside the life of high class escort Chelsea (Grey).
Set in the days leading to the 2008 elections in the United States, most of the characters' conversations revolve around Obama, the debates and the recession.
Therefore most of Chelsea's clients end up talking about contracts that worry them or advice her how to invest, instead of having actual sex.
She doesn't have sex with her boyfriend Chris (Santos) either as he spends all his time in the gym where he works or looking for new ways to make money.
Why then, one could ask, would Soderbergh cast professional porn star Grey to fill in a role that doesn't need her to do what she does best?
This is one of the director's many subtle commentaries contained in the film. This isn't a film about sex, but about transactions and sex as a transaction.
The title experience for example refers to a practice where men pay a sex worker to act like their girlfriend.
And not in some sort of emulation mode, if they have actual partners, but to act like they think a girlfriend should. Chelsea therefore nods, agrees with them, caresses their hair and then gives in to whatever their favorite sexual practices are.
Soderbergh's film is about the disappearance, and search, of the sexual fantasy as we once knew it. Has sex in fact stopped being a priority in the face of economic downfall?
The film is shot in cool hues, static closeups and smooth moves, as if we were watching an ad for a high end product. Said product would be Chelsea of course and she does her best to seem like an unreachable object of desire.
Grey who is featured in almost every scene does a remarkable job. She does what very few actors can do well: listen.
She listens so much to others that sometimes she seems to have disappeared. In several scenes she's left out of the frame while someone talks to her, or our view of her is blocked by her companions.
But at the center of this we have to wonder how much it's Grey acting and how much it's Chelsea acting. Chelsea after all is paid to do whatever her clients want her to do.
Soderbergh must've been aware of the post modernist implications in this and he does give the film a few more, hilarious inside jokes.
Like the brilliant casting of film critic Glenn Kenny as a man who offers to write a review for Chelsea in exchange for a complimentary taste of the goods.
His eventual review of her is laugh out loud funny and very bitter, leading us to die and see what Kenny ended up actually saying about the film as a whole.
It's also interesting how Soderbergh might be trying to say something about art with this statement. Are the movies he gets paid for the most the only ones he counts as art? There is much to see and think about in "The Girlfriend Experience" but only if you're willing to go with its flow...don't expect this movie to hold your hand.

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