Saturday, May 23, 2009


Steven Soderbergh follows up his 265 minute movie about a low-rent guerrilla with a 77 minute movie about a high-priced call girl. For that kind of mercy, the ambitious director/producer should be praised. More praise: The Girlfriend Experience isn't nearly as irritating as Bubble and ends up being a million times more watchable than The Good German (both stand among the worst films of the '00s). But Soderbergh's latest film is nothing more than a yawn, a barely risible slice-of-life expose of entrepreneurial prostitution in a post-Spitzer New York City. To be more specific, the exact time frame is late 2008, before the election, but after election fatigue has already set in and the dark clouds of TARP have covered the skies more quickly than the Patriot Act.

But Soderbergh doesn't use these fresh political and cultural touchstones as anything other than tools to paint the character traits of Chelsea (Sasha Grey)'s clientele. The bailout and the election cross the lips of Chelsea's johns before they touch her own, but to attach any deeper meaning to this chit-chatter would be foolish. The cross-cutting story lines of Soderbergh's Traffic made the drug wars entertaining, but it wasn't probing, nor are the investment and economic strategies lobbed around in The Girlfriend Experience. Luckily, Soderbergh knows this and doesn't linger (77 minutes, remember?). In fact, The Girlfriend Experience could be read as, if not accepting, then legitimizing the black-market sex industry. Steven Soderbergh, libertarian crusader? Pfft... nah.

The film's title doesn't refer to the temporary female companionship that Chelsea's socially and sexually dissatisfied customers purchase from her, but to the commitment she craves in an after hours living partner. She seems to have found that in Chris, a personal trainer who accepts Chelsea's offbeat profession, but that soon falls into jeopardy when Chelsea decides to go on a weekend trip with a client who matches up well with her beliefs in Personology ("it's NOT astrology!", she corrects her friend... um, ok). Chris doesn't approve of her overtime ("we agreed on no out-of-town jobs!"), but Chelsea lets her voodoo beliefs drive her decision making anyway. Soderbergh ends the film in a fashion that film-journo types might call "artistic", but I think he just didn't know how to end it.

When I first heard of Soderbergh casting the young (and veteran... sad how the Adult industry works) porn star Sasha Grey in a mainstream film, I was intrigued. This wasn't just a cameo for the perverts in the theater to wink at, no, this was a film that was going to revolve around a frequently fu*ked actress. But after seeing The Girlfriend Experience, I was scratching my head as to why Soderbergh felt he needed Grey. Sasha Grey is a beautiful woman: her porcelain jaw curls around her chin, up to a pair of perfect lips that lead to a nubile nose, while her eyes, like arrows, piercing and dark, are given complete power by the heavy and bold brows that hang above.

But Soderbergh and, er, "Peter Andrews", confoundedly ignore the character in Grey's mug. Outside of an often used over-the-seat close-up of Chelsea's face, Soderbergh routinely shoots her from a distance, from behind, and - in a extended climactic scene - fully hidden behind couch cushions. Further, none of the confidence and dominance that that Sasha Grey exudes in her porn performances is given a chance to play out here in a safer setting. My suspicion is that Grey could be a fine mainstream actress, but The Girlfriend Experience is not the place to test that hunch. Soderbergh constrains her, puts limits on her exuberance, and ultimately makes Sasha Grey out to be more of a doll and sex toy than in her adult films.

Based on its intentions, Soderbergh's film should be renamed "The Pornstar Experiment", because, frankly, the casual offhand casting of Sasha Grey comes off as mere exploitative stunt, more so than any DP scene she might have filmed.


RC said...

Interesting --- I was totally into the concepts behind Bubble and wished it all worked better (unknown cast, three week filming, low budget, simultaneous multiple distribution methods) but no...

and good german, you are so right about it's disappointing nature.

Props for soderbergh experimentation but it'd be nice if he'd find some of the same magic that made him a double nominee with Erin Brokovich and Traffic because his "star power" is dropping all the time.

Joseph B. said...

I really appreciated this movie. And I think you're off a little about this being an "exploitative stunt" for Grey. I think because Soderbergh obscures Grey so much (out of focus, from back, lingering her voice over unassociated images) he avoids any exploitative circumstances and creates a nice mood out of her glacial presence.

Fox said...


Soderbergh does seem to be drifting right now. I'm not sure what his intentions are. That deal he started with Mark Cuban sure seemed to make little dent.


I don't think Soderbergh exploited Grey sexually, I just think he used her name (and her other profession) to drive interest in the film. And then he seems to hold her back in her performance. Granted, maybe she was doing a poor job and he had to reel her in, but she seems more like a prop in The Girlfriend Experience than an actor.

The Mad Hatter said...

I'm one of those who really dug CHE, so I can't argue that Soderbergh is drifting. I'm all one for edgy indie experimentation...but one has to wonder if some of these movies are being made to engage an audience, or just the director himself.

That said, I don't think Soderbergh watsed Grey...I'm more of the opinion that she pure and simply cannot act.

And now I'm starting to think I was the only one who liked THE GOOD GERMAN.

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