May 18, 2009

Girlfriend Experience, The

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Girlfriend Experience, The

DRAMA:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-05-22

Running Length:

1:17

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Brief Frontal Female Nudity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2:35:1

Cast:

Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Glenn Kenny

Director:

Steven Soderbergh

Screenplay:

Brian Koppelman, David Levien

Cinematography:

Peter Andrews

U.S. Distributor:

Magnolia Pictures

Subtitles:

none


Voyeurism is a favorite pursuit of Americans, and The Girlfriend Experience works in large part because it indulges that pastime. The fascination with the film is that it offers an arm's-length opportunity to peer through a peephole into a lifestyle that will be exotic and alluring to most in the audience. Part character study and part snapshot of a specific time and place in American culture, The Girlfriend Experience marks the latest in a long line of atypical choices for Steven Soderbergh, who refuses to be pigeonholed, no matter how fastidiously his detractors and adherents attempt to pin him down.

Although Soderbergh's leading lady is the starlet who goes by the nom de porn of Sasha Grey, this is by no means an attempt by the director to go down the hardcore route traveled recently by respected British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom. In fact, the titillation factor in The Girlfriend Experience is virtually nil. There is almost no nudity - the sole exception is a fast (1-2 second) shot of Grey padding au natural across the screen after getting out of bed. (The MPAA may feel compelled to call this "graphic nudity" since it is full frontal.) While there is frank sexual discourse, it's presented clinically. By design, this is one un-sexy motion picture.

The story is set in October 2008. The pre-election hype is heating up as the economy melts down. Christine, a.k.a. Chelsea (Grey), is a high-priced escort who offers "the girlfriend experience" for anyone who can pay her $2000/hour price. Most of her regulars "date" her rather than merely having sex with her. Those appointments often consist of dinners, nights at the movies, and lots of talk. The sex is often secondary, and sometimes it doesn't happen at all. Her role is often that of a $24,000 therapist and she's a slightly different woman with each man. On her own time, she lives with a boyfriend named Chris (Chris Santos), who makes his living as a personal trainer. Chris is understanding and supportive of her profession until she takes things too far with one client and crosses a line that leaves him feeling betrayed.

This is a cold movie, as befits the subject matter - love, sex, and companionship are all commodities that can be sold and bought. Christine wears armor and doesn't show her true side to anyone, perhaps not even Chris. It's arguable whether even she knows who she really is. She has become so adept at playing roles that the chameleon may no longer recognize its natural shade. She gets well paid to provide comfort but, in the end, money is an icy bedfellow.

The film is structured in an intentionally cryptic manner, scrambling the chronology like a jigsaw puzzle. For the better part of the first half, it's not obvious the movie is not progressing in a linear fashion but then clues make it apparent that Soderbergh is toying with the time line. Only in retrospect can the story be pieced together with a reasonable degree of coherence. Then again, since plot is not a primary characteristic, the fact we're being fed disconnected "moments" is of minimal import. The point seems to be that Christine lives in the present and that's how The Girlfriend Experience represents her life, without concern of how the "past" and "future" fit.

Grey is the film's only professional actor, and this is her first major role in a mainstream production. Her work subverts the common belief that porn stars cannot act. She delivers her dialogue convincingly, is uncomfortably effective as the ice queen sheltering beneath a suit of armor, and even allows us to catch glimpses of something wounded, or longing, or lost. Her eyes, however, are as hard as agates. Grey is surrounded by non-professionals, including her co-star, Chris Santos, and a scene-stealing Glenn Kenny (the former Premiere film critic plays a sex critic who sleazes his way into Christine's bed only to deliver the movie's most blistering lines).

The Girlfriend Experience, which clocks in at a skinny 77 minutes, is Soderbergh's follow-up to the never-ending Che, which was so long that it had to be split into two pieces. This is the second picture the director has made under his agreement with Mark Cuban (following Bubble), whereby films are made available simultaneously on pay-per-view TV, in theaters, and on DVD. The Girlfriend Experience will open in Landmark Theaters on May 22, around the same time it shows up as an on-demand TV option. It is already available for download as a "rental" from Amazon.com.

To the extent that a portion of the audience watches this film with the expectation of seeing "a Sasha Grey movie," there may be some disappointment. Yet by not allowing the actress to escape into her comfort zone, Soderbergh has given us something more intriguing - a genuine performance. And, by not succumbing to the Hollywood formula that all hookers must have hearts of gold, The Girlfriend Experience finds a rare vein of verisimilitude. The director's ruthlessly unsentimental depiction of Christine's lifestyle makes for fascinating, albeit distanced, voyeurism.

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