The Girlfriend Experience Movie Review

As modern American directors go, few are as stylistically quicksilver and urgent as Steven Soderbergh. With the notable exception of his Ocean's trilogy, the director has never fully embraced any one particular style, though he continues to choose subject matter and film vernacular of the most ambitious order. Following his towering four-hour anti-biopic Che, Soderbergh returns now, little less than six months gone, with The Girlfriend Experience, a hyper-indie that casts the dilapidated economy and wavering faith in capitalism through the designer shades of a Manhattan escort.

As plot goes, there isn't very much to speak of. Chelsea (adult film raven Sasha Grey) visits a few johns, hangs out with her personal-trainer boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), talks to a reporter, and does lunch with a fellow escort. Despite lack of a structure, Soderbergh and screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien do allow for a few salient situations, including a visit with escort critic The Erotic Connoisseur (played by erstwhile Premiere film critic Glenn Kenney) and a botched rendezvous with a client upstate. The focus, however, is on Chelsea herself.

Far more attuned to mood than Bubble, Soderbergh's last spin through the world of American indies, The Girlfriend Experience is a consistent and endlessly provocative experiment in leering. It is also one of the few exceptionally modern films I have seen in this past decade, setting itself in a world we have barely yet entered, with Chelsea talking about Man on Wire with a client before passive-aggressively grilling him about smart stock options. Godard always found prostitutes to be the epitome of the free-market system, a perfect allegory on their own, but Grey's Chelsea is also a creature of the PR age: The film's title comes from the way she markets herself as the girl you take out to a movie, talk about good wines with, and make out with before the copulation gets underway.

What is even more interesting is the way that Soderbergh conveys the free market as identity. Chris is no less a master of selling one's self than Chelsea is and though the metaphor might be glaring, the way that they interact is fascinating. After a day of attempting to sell more sessions and attempting to get a stake in the gym he works at, almost all Chris talks about with Chelsea is how he isn't selling enough. It's also interesting to note how Chelsea sells most of her emotional decisions through a belief in Personology. Even Chris' trip to Las Vegas with some clients is a pitch for camaraderie and a timeshare, not to mention a nifty send-up of the Ocean's films.

Set in the weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential elections, the timeline is tossed around but edited fluidly with attention paid fully to Ms. Grey's slender figure and youthful face. The 21-year-old adult film star, who has referred to her work in pornography as "performance art" and has spoken of a passion for Antonioni, Godard, and other '60s arthouse icons, appears in almost every frame of the film. But of Ms. Grey's much-argued-about performance, there is not much to be said. She certainly has a watchable quality and she fits well in the role, but the film has very little to do with dramatic performance. Soderbergh's enigmatic contraption is dependent on Ms. Grey's comfort with sex and being packaged to define her character realistically. As performances go, The Girlfriend Experience borders on documentary.

Let's order lobster.

Cast & Crew


The Girlfriend Experience Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2009


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