Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh


Steven Soderbergh shot his new low-budget movie, The Girlfriend Experience, on a digital Red Camera. It melds epicurean pornography, the mainstream debut of adult film star Sasha Grey (who admires Jean-Luc Godard), and a story with stylistic panache and little sex onscreen.

Conventional wisdom in the cyberworld is that the consumer will pay for two kinds of content – financial advice and pornography. The days, youre likely to get more for your money from pornography. The Girlfriend Experience has both, each refracted through director Steven Soderberghs drama about product development. The product here is a one-woman escort service poised to raise its profile as the economy founders, set just before the 2008 presidential election.

Prostitution at the epicurean level is the backdrop of Steven Soderberghs 20th feature film , the “mainstream” debut of adult film actress Sasha Grey. With barely any sex on the screen (in stark contrast to any other film that has featured Grey, my porn cognoscenti friends tell me), you might say that the film suggests more than it shows, or that it shows the logical evolution of one tiny part of the sex-for-money business at its highest price points.

The story unfolds in anything but a gray monochrome, as languorous Chelsea (Grey) spends business days and twilights with the wealthy and once-wealthy in environments where little money has been spared on interior design. Its a stylistic coup for the directors low-budget ambitions – a lesson which we hope wont be lost on all the would-be Soderberghs out there.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience

Sasha Grey in "The Girlfriend Experience"

Lean and unsentimental, The Girlfriend Experience, shot on a digital Red Camera, has already surpassed the $145,000 US box office of Bubble (2005), the first low-budget film in Soderberghs planned series of six. One crucial difference is Grey, whose role has been widely hyped in interviews where she talks about her love for the films of Jean-Luc Godard and other subjects not usually associated with the tastes of porn stars. No doubt her arty urbanity has helped the film in U.S. art houses, although international audiences will test this novel art/porn synergy. I predict success, if only because the films palette seems drawn from magazines like W and Ocean Drive.

With more atmosphere than script, the picture follows Chelsea (Grey) from one encounter to the next with rich men in early pudgy middle age, all of whom dread a collapsing economy – the election is approaching and the news that we all know now has barely gotten out. Although shes not in physical danger (as Jane Fonda was in Klute, one of the best films about a working girl), her job threatens the bruisable ego of her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a restless personal trainer who earns far less than her $2000-an-hour emolument.

In Manhattan restaurants and hotel rooms with all the right accoutrements, Chelseas clients fret about the economy. Chelsea concern is also business growth, branding herself on escort sites, and possibly trading up from Chris if the right client meets her requirements.

Soderberghs narrative experiment has no Hollywood-style dramatic beginning or end, and no obvious message about the link between business and prostitution, although we can see the risks over the horizons of Chelseas yearning to have the income that clients now seem to be losing. Theres no threat of violence, as in Klute (in which Fonda played a prostitute stalked through New York by a John who fears disclosure), no promise of romance, as in Pretty Woman. With composure and assurance, Soderbergh observes the daily and nightly life of a young woman whom men pay, not for mere sex, but for a relationship, the “girlfriend experience.” They dont seem to get much, but as in every encounter with a prostitute, its usually more than they are getting at home.

Shot elegantly (by Soderbergh, credited as Peter Andrews) in mostly available light with the Red Camera (also used in Bubble), New York interiors have a calm verisimilitude that complements Chelseas sexy, steely demeanor, dressed expertly for the job by Christopher Petersen. If theres drama here, its in the impending financial crash, which hasnt hurt Chelseas business yet. In contrast to the men, who contain their anxiety (one orthodox diamond merchant tells her as hes undressing to be mindful of threats to Israel when she contemplates her vote for president), Chelsea worries to a friend about the paucity of emotional contact with her clients. Even hard-headed prostitutes can be self-delusional.

The films script (written by, in case you havent guessed, Soderbergh, and credited to Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and reportedly seven pages long) is an outline from which the actors improvised. Soderbergh calls it structured improvisation. Sometimes it looks that way with the casts non-professional actors (except for Grey), yet the dramatic approach fuels an uneasiness of an economy shifting by the day. Soderbegh achieves what he says hes been after in his low-budget, quickly-filmed projects: not well-constructed scenes, but a realism from human actions that appear to be happening as you watch them. Think of it as putting actors (or non-actors) on a set thats just been stylized for an advertising shoot, giving them a brief description of whats supposed to be happening, and then turning on the camera.

Its clear from Greys voice that she is not an actress trained in conventional drama, yet she moves like someone who knows rich mens territory. Shed make a good spy. The actress is adroitly cast as a young woman, confident sexually, yet looking improbably for love as well as money. Her lust is to become part of the class that she serves.

Theres plenty of humor in the mens fears of losing money — whats more wry than a rich mans pain? — and in their mentor-style discussions with Chelsea of broader economic trends, while losing it. Designated comic relief comes from a pompous Internet escort reviewer (critic Glenn Kenny), who cajoles a quid pro quo out of Chelsea on the expectation that hell praise her on the web. Were reminded that every business has room for more charlatans, even in the worst of times.

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