For a little while now I've been keeping a running tab of the best films of the new millennium in the hopes that I might be able to publish a book. I came across a film recently that is the subject of a little bit of controversy, at least among film crowds. it started a few months ago, for me anyway, when I read in Rolling Stone about a pornstar who'd been cast in the next Steven Soderbergh film (the Boston premiere of Che was a few weeks away, so I wasn't worried about Soderbergh losing his mind and casting Jenna Jameson as Aleida Guevara). The weeks went by and no word about the film reached my ears until January when the film premiered at Sundance. Suddenly everyone (relative term) was abuzz about The Girlfriend Experience. I heard a number of takes on the film, most of them negative, and thought the best way to cut through the hype was to track the damn thing down and see for myself. I found it, of all places, in a hotel room (I guess it's sort of fitting to have found it On Demand along with Interracial Orgies and Who's Nailin' Paylin?) in Washington DC. The perfect setting for an indiscretion...
The Girlfriend Experience
by Steven Soderbergh
Christine is a high-priced escort. Her boyfriend Chris is a personal trainer. They both work in glamorous, glossy environments making rich people sweat for criminal sums of money. Christine is into Astrology and one gets the notion that she puts a lot of faith into fad spirituality; her beliefs lead her to think about leaving Chris for a client who shares her birthday and zodiac sign. She and Chris have a real relationship despite her flakiness and they do seem to genuinely care for each other, even though they live and work in an almost entirely superficial world. Most of the time they spend at work revolves around the economic crisis; everyone needs money and can't really afford the luxury of a personal trainer or an escort anymore. Christine gives a free evening to a reviewer in the hopes that it will bring her clout and expand her business; this backfires spectacularly, causing her incredible distress. The ending is ambiguous, but there seems to be hope for the two protagonists.
Steven Soderbergh is much more rebellious than people give him credit for. Granted he, like Christine, works in a world of superficiality and dollar signs, but name one other major studio director who's paid tribute to Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Siodmak, Franz Kafka, Che Guevara, and Carol Reed. Name someone else who can make multi-million dollar art films and get them accepted for international distribution and then break to make relentlessly audacious micro-budget films with no recognizable protagonist. And don't say Quentin Tarentino cause I'll put a pencil through your hand. Soderbergh has basically done whatever the hell he wants to without becoming completely polarizing. He's cleaned up at the Oscars, Cannes, Sundance, Film Critics Awards, and the Directors Guild Awards. So just what is The Girlfriend Experience?
Soderbergh, in the wake of Traffic's unprecedented critical and financial success, seems to be out to challenge himself and everyone else. Hence his remake of Solaris (which I loved), his tribute to The Third Man and post-war noir, The Good German (which I didn't), his essentially objective biopic Che (half and half) and The Girlfriend Experience. The film is non-linear and refuses to side with or fully abandon its protagonist. There is no non-diegetic music, just snatches of street performers playing in their element. Soderbergh's camera is an uninvolved observer; taking in the cold eye of Christine as she pretends to be someone she is not. She changes her character constantly in keeping with her profession and lets so little of herself show; many have chalked this up to Sasha Grey's inability to act properly, but really all it does is add to the impenetrability of that world. I personally had no problem with her acting, she's certainly no worse than Marilyn Chambers in Rabid (which I also liked), one of this film's very few precedents. At one point Chris goes to Las Vegas with a client and his friends in a private jet; Soderbergh edits snatches of their trip into the action in New York. Their conversation is idle and irreverent. Though their dialogue is lengthy, they speak essentially of nothing; they shout their opinions of women, drinking and dating over the rushing sound of the jet's engine. It's docu-style realism of nothingness and non-events which seems to be important enough to the thematic throughline (the non-actors are all pretty amazing, actually with a few exceptions), but Soderbergh's camera is weirdly flat and unconcerned and the fact that each clip is basically identical means that the sort of talking they do is counter-productive. It isn't quite as sad in tone as when Chris asks for more hours from his gym or when Christine spies the new call girl on the block. There's emotion to be found beneath the flatness of Soderbergh's characters; like David Cronenberg's Crash, another claustrophobic study of urban sexuality, The Girlfriend Experience just happens to catch its characters doing one specific thing. Here they work and they mask their emotions.
Christine has to conceal her actual emotional involvement from everyone in her lives. There's one exception, the aforementioned girl sighting (the girl is moving in on her territory) and when she has to confront Chris about her moving in with a client. She tries to hide her emotions so that she can make an impulsive decision seem like a smart, rational one and one gets the sense that her life is made of moments like this. It's defined by decisions that most people couldn't rationalize in a hundred years, leastways not in ordinary circumstances. She lives a life of privilege, but it comes from professionally removing her emotions; hiding all the real things about her including her name (one of a few parallels to Grey's real life). Said gloss is shown expertly by our auteur who acts as cinematographer, too. Soderbergh doesn't brag about it, but he's a hell of a photographer. Solaris was one of the best looking sci-fi films I've ever seen, and that's saying something, as the genre is built on interesting visuals. He shot Girlfriend on a RedOne (look it up) and utilizes lowlight and found-light to its utmost potential; the film is gorgeous, even if it is grainy. The silky, dim interiors and lavish boutiques and restaurants that she inhabits are almost always on display, almost to act as a distraction from all the lying.
The fact that the film is one of Soderbergh's least expensive may have been purposive rather than out of necessity. He may be the only living filmmaker who intentionally limits himself, and he's a better filmmaker for it. Made for under 2 million dollars, the film is what I'd call meta-cinematical in that it pays attention to people whose money has been dripping away and it features a pornstar playing a prostitute who takes her clothes off exactly once in near-darkness. The publicity the film's been getting (not to mention the garish poster art) will probably give you the wrong idea about what its like (I know it did for me). It is one of the only presentational American fiction films I can remember seeing that wasn't made in the 60s and is incredibly interesting to dissect. The negative space forces us to load them with our own conceptions, made easier by the offscreen meaning burst of casting a pornstar. Soderbergh has basically given critics a blank canvas and they're totally squandering the oppurtunity. I've yet to read a positive review. I get that this isn't exactly Amelie or Pretty Fucking Woman but come on, it's a beautifully shot objective character study. How many of those do we have right now? Anyone been to a movie theatre recently who doesn't live in Chelsea? Would you guys prefer X-Men Origins or Transformers 2? I had to drive an hour and some to see Tulpan the other day, I'm not exactly swimming in options. So while I see that the film has only so much to offer, I liked what I got. Ignore the poster (but damn it' good...), ignore the trailer, just see it.