The Girlfriend Experience: Another Amateurish Soderbergh Experiment
The problem with The Girlfriend Experience isn’t Sasha Grey, whose streamlined looks and cool demeanor are actually fairly compelling in this character study of an escort in New York City. The problem lies with Steven Soderbergh, who jumps between several ideas running through his head and manages to portray them all in a monotonous manner. Soderbergh’s latest, shot on digital camera during the time of the presidential debates and initial bailouts, wants to capture a specific moment in history, while also drawing comparisons between escorts and those who provide other interactive services where “relationships” are built, and finally (and perhaps insultingly) including a subplot in which it’s revealed that *gasp!* escort girls have feelings too. It’s a jumbled mess, with some interesting ideas half-heartedly thrown together to look like a student film (albeit a well-made one).
Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is an escort girl who delivers GFE, or the girlfriend experience, meaning that she doesn’t simply have sex with clients. She goes on dates, she listens to their problems, and sometimes they don’t even have sex at all. Chelsea also has a boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos) who is fine with her lifestyle– they have rules like any other couple when it comes to balancing work life and home life. Chris is a fitness trainer, who is looking for promotions and commitments from his bosses and clients to ensure steady income in these pressed economic times. Chelsea is also looking to establish herself more fully– she maintains a website, and even visits a quasi-critic of escorts who calls himself the Erotic Connoisseur. But much like Chris, she creates a repor with regular clients and enjoys what she does. A journalist tries to pick her brain, and finds that she is strong and guarded, keeping her walls up and personal life to herself.
Or so we think. In a movie that has such a strong woman in the lead role, Soderbergh gives her very subtle scenes of emotion and vulnerability that seem untrue to the character. We see her handling herself professionally for the entire film, and she maintains a healthy home life– all the film is is a character study, so any sort of plot is completely unnecessary and beside the point. However, after years of conducting herself as a strict businesswoman, she falls for a client after one day (the end of a hard day, but one day nevertheless), and she believes there might be something she should pursue based on her compatibility with the client according to her personology books. The personology books seem to be a device solely inserted into the film to create this plot point, and to create a rift between Chelsea and Chris. Chris, extremely reasonably, does not want her to go away for the weekend with this client she’s only seen once, and she calls him selfish, leading us to the trademark “I let you sleep with other people” indignance. Are these characters that dumb and shortsighted, after an hour of seeing them behave smartly, to develop these contrived emotions and plot twists in the last fifteen minutes?
And yes, the film is barely seventy-five minutes long, and couldn’t feel any longer if it tried. The pace is so slow and the plot so non-existent that I found myself straining for details in the lives of Chelsea and Chris, only to have both of these guarded characters keep them away from me. The character study of two professionals who deal in serving clients in these ways is an obvious parallel, but at least it serves as an interesting basis for an indie flick– if the dialogue was ear-catching or revealing, which it isn’t, or the characters are relatable or sympathetic, and any trace of sympathy for these characters flies out the window in the last fifteen minutes when they act in cliche and out of character. What is the point of doing a film like this if you’re just going to give us a shaky-cam, “cinema verite” version of the same old “escorts are sensitive too” story?
It’s because Soderbergh likes to make these movies without much regard for quality, it seems. His digital films (others include Full Frontal and Bubble) always seem to be based on ideas, nothing more, and are filled with monotonous scenes of dull dialogue. He creates an interesting connection between the audience and Sasha Grey, who we know is a porn star, and at times we get lost in the film solely because he lets the camera linger on her interesting, strong face for so long. It’s a pity in the end he lets her character betray that strength and professionalism. I’d like to see a film where the hooker is fine with her job and her standing in life at the beginning, and is fine with it at the end. Soderbergh delivers the first half, but then sinks into the norm on the second half, leading us to wonder why we watched all this meticulous footage of Grey in the first place.
Were we supposed to note how he objectifies her with the camera the way the men objectify her based on her looks? Unlike Soderbergh, the male clients seem to care about Chelsea in a manner that transcends appearance, whereas we in the audience are so tired of the monotony of the dialogue that the imagery is what we’re left with, so when the plot turns and Grey’s character betrays what we know about her, we spend the rest of the film admiring her physical blessings, dutifully recorded and admirably lit in every scene by Soderbergh. It’s good that he knew he had a fallback when his garbled commentary on economy, client services, emotional walls of those who deal in sex, and all of the other wisps of ideas he threw into this film fell apart. Did he think a smartly written movie about an escort and her boyfriend wasn’t compelling enough on its own without the additional ideas, characters, and documentary-esque shaky cam? Perhaps he saw he didn’t have a smartly written film and acted accordingly; an abundance of ideas can work brilliantly in a film, but sometimes it’s a transparent device to cover up the lack of wit. While it’s great that big-name directors like Soderbergh still tackle experimental film like this, he doesn’t automatically earn an A for effort. I wanted my money back– The Girlfriend Experience left me unsatisfied.
Note: It’s telling that the only publicity photos available are voyeuristic shots of Ms. Grey’s face. While frustrating that it doesn’t show more variety, it’s an accurate portrayal of the 75 minutes of film you’re about to watch.