Review: The Girlfriend Experience (dir. by Steven Soderbergh)


In-between his big epic projects (Che biopic) and studio projects (Ocean’s 11 thru to 13) Steven Soderbergh has been quite busy with very low-budgeted, experimental film projects like Bubble and Full Frontal. His latest in this series of HD-shot, low-budget fare is The Girlfriend Experience. When it was first announced in 2008 the buzz on this little film was due to the fact that Soderbergh decided to cast the lead of the film with real-life porn star Sasha Grey. Much of the talk of the film since that announcement up to its film festival circuit release always end up dealing with his bold choice to cast Grey in the role of Chelsea. The Girlfriend Experience is an intriguing film which tries to show parallels between the high-end sex industry Chelsea deals in to the powerbrokers of capitalism.

First off, Sasha Grey is not the weak link of the film despite her reputation as being a major porn star. While her performance was spotty throughout there was several instances when there’s definite talent and energy in her scenes. Ms. Grey’s seemingly vacuous and imperceptible on-screen persona was seen as her lack of talent and a performer way over her head, but looking at her performance from the stand point of her character it’s actually very spot on. Chelsea is a $10,000-dollar a night call-girl whose client base are the rich and powerful. Individuals who can buy anything and anyone they want and in Chelsea they pay a lot of money to have the so-called “girlfriend experience.” One of the very first scenes we see her in shows her with a client as they go through events of their day. At first, it seems like they’re a normal couple of a powerful man dating a younger, well-mannered and educated woman, but it is this artifice which permeates through the entirety of the whole film.

Chelsea’s life is one of not just selling her body for money, but also creating the illusion of what makes for a perfect relationship. On the surface, everyone who sees them only see what she and the client want them to see but the truth of it is much seedier and perpetuates the idea that everything is going well. Ms. Grey sells this aspect of Chelsea’s life quite well. Where some may see a Barbie-doll playing as a serious actress I see a performer who seem to be channeling her own personal and intimate experiences into the role. It’s very difficult to determine where Ms. Grey ends and Chelsea begins. Does this mean she has a future as a mainstream performer? I think it does if given the right projects and director to work with. It is quite easy for her to be typecast in sexually-charged roles, but as this film shows she can handle herself ably enough in a role that doesn’t rely on her reputation as a porn star.

The Girlfriend Experience may have its story around a high-end call-girl but the film itself has less to do with the selling of sex and more to do with the selling of illusions and fantasies. Even Chelsea’s boyfriend Chris (played by Chris Santos) who works as a personal trainer sells a fantasy to his clients in a fashion. There’s very little sentimentality in this film and when it tries to is when the film trudges over to the weak-side of the spectrum. The very nature of the themes presented in the film eschews sentimentality and shows just how brutal the truth can be when the layers of illusions and fantasies have been peeled away. Chelsea knows this but still clings to a certain naivete about life in general. While she shows a head for the business she is in and how she could conitnue to use it to open up her own business her decisions once new blood start encroaching on her clients shows just how vulnerable she still is to those in power and influence who have decades of experience over her.

The film was shot in such a quick manner during the latter end of 2008 and into 2009 that it one could sense Soderbergh’s attempt to link Chelsea’s experiences in the film as a parallel to the sudden collapse of the banking and housing industry. Two industries which peddled and sold the macro-version of the “girlfriend experience.” People who wanted a piece of the American Dream despite not being able to afford it were sold an illusion that they could. In time such illusions were bound to fall and for reality to set in as it had for Ms. Grey’s Chelsea and her attempt to realize her dream. In the end, everything and everyone bought into the “girlfriend experience” and couldn’t see the reality of things until it was too little and, definitely, too late.

Soderbergh’s direction is a bit difficult to comprehend at times as the film unfolds in his typical non-linear fashion. Those who have followed his work won’t be put-off by this fractured narrative but those who come into The Girlfriend Experience who only know Soderbergh through his studio work may end up being confused. All that aside, he does show the ability to try new things in this film and his continued experimentation of HD-cameras. The look of the film is very crisp and at times too much so that it looks artificial as HD can sometimes look on the big-screen. But then again this just adds to the themes running throughout the film. While the film may look too clean and artificial at first glance that is just the surface. It’s beneath that things dirty and real are perceived.

Of his three works so far in this HD-medium I will say that The Girlfriend Experience is his best work work, so far. While it is not a perfect film by any means — at times looking and sounding quite average for a director of his talent — there’s a certain French New Wave quality which evokes Jean-Luc Godard in the direction. This film will not win Soderbergh any awards and may be a one-time mainstream fluke of one Sasha Grey, but the fact that it has gotten made and people are actually interested in it (even if its due to the voyeuristic and tittilating aspect of watching a porn star trying to act mainstream) shows that both director and star are not willing to settle for what they consider safe. That’s quite a refreshing thing to see in the industry and whether the film succeeds in how Hollywood gauges such things it won’t matter since the film has gone beyond an idea and into something anyone can see and decide for themselves its merits.

6 responses to “Review: The Girlfriend Experience (dir. by Steven Soderbergh)

  1. I thought the Girlfriend Experience was one of the unacknowledged great films of 2009 with Sasha Grey serving as the perfect metaphor for America, capitalism, and just about everything else that currently seems to be in a state of flux. If nothing else, it serves as a vivid time capsule of pre-Obama America, with all of its strengths and flaws.

    Sasha Grey, I think, could have a career in “mainstream” film though, considering how frightened society is by the prospect of any woman being open about her sexuality, she’s also going to be known as “adult film performer Sasha Grey” no matter what she does. Personally, I would have nominated her for an Oscar for her performance in this film.

    The Godard comparison is especially apt, with The Girlfriend Experience having a few really obvious parallels to 1 or 2 Things I Know About Her. However, I would say that Soderbergh’s film is superior to the majority of Godard’s work because, unlike Godard, Soderbergh allows the story to make his points as opposed to allowing his points to dictate the story.

    As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I could easily see Sasha Grey cast as the lead in the Americanized version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

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    • That’s actually a bold statement about Soderbergh’s film being superior to any Godard. I can hear the film elitists and cineaste up in arms if they ever read that. But I agree with you to a point. Soderbergh’s storytelling style may actually be better than Godard’s but even S.S. can fall to the same hubris Godard has where their need to experiment on new way to tell a story can hinder the very story they’re trying to tell.

      As for Ms. Grey, I think Middle-America will always see her in the role she started in the business as. There’s no denying that fact. But I think once you start getting to the coasts where more liberal and progressive thinking has started to hold sway they’ll see her as just a very talented, albeit very raw, actor who can go places if she continues to make choices to land mainstream roles. In fact, I think of her adult performer peers she’s really the one who has the ability to fully cross over where her adult-film past doesn’t become a hindrance.

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      • Well, when you talk about Godard, you’re actually talking about a dozen different filmmakers who all just happen to be the same guy. To me, the Godard of Breathless and Alphaville and Contempt is one of the greatest filmmakers ever and he can’t be matched. However, that Godard was replaced by a Godard who, like many political filmmakers, sacrificed everything unique and unpredictable about his films in order to promote a certain ideology. (Admitedly, this might not bother me as much if Godard and I had the same ideology but I’m far too much of a Libertarian to really get much out of Godard’s upper class Marxism.) With Godard, I feel as if he decided that he had to make a choice between his love of film and his love of Marx and he went with Marx. (Needless to say, its impossible for me to comprehend how anyone could select anything over individual artistic expression.)

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