Director: Steven Soderbergh
In between the diminishing returns of the Oceans franchise, Steven Soderbergh has rediscovered his radical, experimental impulse, almost as if in reaction to the commercial dross that he’s worked on since his career was revived with 1998’s ‘Out of Sight’. There was 2002’s ‘Full Frontal’ and 2005’s ‘Bubble’, films he could probably only get made because of his connections and success with more mainstream films. Now we have the next instalment of this type of film making – ‘The Girlfriend Experience’. The critical reception of all of Soderbergh’s more esoteric, arthouse films has always been mixed. It probably doesn’t matter to Soderbergh one iota – as far as he’s concerned, pushing the boundaries of what he’s capable of is what motivates him with these smaller chamber pieces.
The basic premise of ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ is observing the life of a high-class Manhattan escort during the economic downturn. The intriguing casting decision here is to use a real-life pornographic actress in the lead role. I’m assured Sasha Grey is one of the most prolific and successful actresses in her field, but her experience here might only be part of the reason why she was cast. Ms Grey is actually an interesting woman in her own right, with various non-pornographic interests and an apparent rich knowledge of cinema. Indeed, before she settled on her stage name, she toyed with naming herself Anna Karina. As to whether Ms Grey is a competent ‘straight’ actress or otherwise is a matter of debate. Part of the issue is the role she’s assigned. Her Chelsea is a somewhat vacant, vapid woman, who might have a boyfriend who accepts her choice of occupation, but she herself is an emotionally blank canvass. How much did Soderbergh have to encourage her to act or is this just how Ms Grey is, and she is effectively playing herself? Not that this probably matters especially.
The metaphor of prostitution as capitalism has been widely used in cinema since its advent and is hardly in itself original. Godard’s twin films of ‘Vivre Sa Vie’ and ‘Two of Three Things I Know About Her’ are strong examples of this and were reported to have been influences upon ‘The Girlfriend Experience’. But arguably it’s less a film about prostitution per sé and more a film about capitalism in the 21st century. Set against the economic downturn and presidential election of 2008, Soderbergh looks uncertainly at the future. Many of Chelsea’s clients are struggling businessmen and they readily divulge their anxieties about the depression. Chelsea’s own boyfriend, Chris, is an ambitious personal trainer who attempts himself to climb the greasy pole of business, much as his girlfriend does. But is one form of capitalism more ethical than another? Chris ingratiates himself with a bunch of yuppies on their way to a blow-out in Las Vegas, hardly established as the most sympathetic of characters. When Chelsea, newly separated from Chris, lets her emotions and business mix, the results are unsatisfactory. There are hints though at something beneath the surface of Chelsea, though this moment of hubris is a little misjudged.
Where Soderbergh really impresses is with his visuals, as you would expect. The director himself revealed two main influences in terms of the use of colour; Antonioni’s ‘The Red Desert’ and Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’. Notwithstanding the film’s meagre budget, it’s still a striking piece of work. The framing of shots is often distorted for effect, which ties in with the glacial emotional feel of a film that’s clearly under the influence of Antonioni (one of Ms Grey’s favourite film makers as well apparently). It’s very much a non-chronological film, with frequent flashbacks and fast-forwards. Soderbergh remains radical in his approach to film making, controlling all aspects of it from start to finish. However, the film lacks bite and substance. If it is an attack on capitalism and the current financial climate, it’s a pretty vague one. We learn little more about contemporary corporate America than we do about Chelsea herself. ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ is a worthwhile experiment and worth seeing, but with reservations attached.