Dir. Steven Soderbergh, US, 2009, 77 mins
Steven Soderbergh continues his series of low-budget, digitally-shot features for HDNet with The Girlfriend Experience, dealing with prostitution and marking the mainstream debut of adult film actress Sasha Grey. With barely any sex on the screen, the film suggests more than it shows and, despite its small canvas, is a stylistic coup for the director’s low-budget ambitions.
The Girlfriend Experience should easily surpass the $145,000 domestic haul of Soderbergh’s Bubble (2005), the first in his planned series of six such features. With Grey attracting wide-spread media attention, this should play well in US art houses at the very least.
“With barely any sex on the screen, the film suggests more than it shows”
Soderbergh’s camera (using the name Peter Andrews) follows high-priced call girl Chelsea (Grey) between her encounters with rich business men in early middle age who seek relief from a collapsing economy. Although she’s not in any danger, her job threatens boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a restless personal trainer who earns far less than her $2,000-an-hour fee.
In Soderbergh’s financially-endangered realm of Manhattan’s top restaurants and hotel rooms in late 2008, Chelsea’s clients fret about their businesses and advise her on broader financial trends even as they’re losing their own money. Yet Chelsea is building her own business, branding herself on escort sites, and possibly trading up from Chris with the right client.
This narrative experiment - film’s script is credited to Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and is reportedly seven pages long – is set in the fall of pre-election 2008 has no real beginning or end, no studied winks about links between business and prostitution, no threat of violence (a la Klute) or romance (Pretty Woman). With composure, assurance and a film-like depth to the digital image, Soderbergh has created a character who doesn’t just sell sex, but a relationship – “the girlfriend experience.”
Shot elegantly in mostly available light with the Red Camera (as in Bubble), Soderbergh’s New York interiors have a calm verisimilitude which complement Chelsea’s sexy, steely demeanour. If there’s drama here, it’s in the sense that this fragile world may be coming apart. Yet in depression and war, it’s clear that Chelsea’s profession will survive.
Soderbergh calls the process behind The Girlfriend Experience “structured improvisation”. With a cast of non-professional actors (except for Grey), the film’s dramatic approach mirrors the uneasiness of an economy which is shifting by the day. Soderbegh in his 20th feature achieves what he has sought throughout his low-budget, quickly-filmed projects: not the well-made scene, but realistic human drama.
It is clear from Grey’s voice that she is not a conventionally-trained actress, yet her character moves like someone who knows the territory rich men inhabit – she is sexually confident and yearns to join the class that she serves. Grey is perfect casting for the part, likewise her ensemble of paunchy rich johns (who could easily be Chris’s exercise clients) hit the right notes of persuasive realism.
Designated comic relief comes from a pompous internet escort reviewer (critic Glenn Kenny), who cajoles a quid pro quo out of Chelsea - she expects that he’ll praise her on the web. Bad times bring out charlatans in every business.
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