Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Film Review The Girlfriend Experience | One or Two Things I Know About Her

by Thomas Delapa

In the 20 years since Steven Soderbergh made his name--and the Sundance Film Festival--with sex, lies and videotape, his career has careened between big-budget juggernauts like Ocean’s Eleven and risky art-house projects that haven’t made great waves either critically or commercially. The odds are again stacked against him in The Girlfriend Experience, a Godardian treatment of upscale prostitution that bucks the axiom that you can’t buy love.

In the case of a ravishing, high-priced Manhattan call girl named Chelsea (Sasha Grey), love means never having to say you’re sorry, at least not at $2000 an hour.

At a scanty 77 minutes, Soderbergh’s film gets under the skin of the crass, transactional world of New York’s moneyed set on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. In this seamy side of sex and the city, prostitution is casually treated as just another profession, to be promoted and branded with all the latest business buzzwords. An independent working girl, Chelsea wants to launch her own website so she can “grow the business.” In a semi-autobiographical fillip, Grey is making her mainstream debut after four years of experience as a high-priced porn star (sample title: Sporty Girls 2).

Voyeurs beware, for Soderbergh’s camera is rigorously chaste, keeping the audience at a Brechtian distance through clandestine long shots and light levels permanently set at dim. As in Godard’s legendary sixties films like The Married Woman, Soderbergh isn’t interested in sex per se, but how it’s being debased in an explicitly post-modern, if not post-human, culture.

Chelsea’s tolerant boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), is cool with her career, acting the supportive significant other. He only objects when she capriciously decides to spend a weekend with one her married clients, who just might be Mr. Right. A personal trainer at a fitness center, Chris is struggling with his job, which also has been co-opted into the corporate world.

Wedded to Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s spare script, Soderbergh’s episodic, almost desultory style will be a workout for most audiences. But the seeming lack of polish masks an aesthetic that exposes the airy superficiality of these
relationships--as easily disposable as hitting your computer's delete button. A sultry enigma, Chelsea reveals next to nothing about herself to either her boyfriend or to the journalist (Mark Jacobson) interviewing her, perhaps because there’s nothing to reveal. In the scenes with the writer, Soderbergh so buys into the Godard style, the interviews should be subtitled Dialogue with a Consumer Product, a la Masculin-Feminin.

Along with her body, Chelsea lends her clients (which don’t number Eliot Spitzer) an ear, which they fill with trite but true confessions that invariably revolve around making money, not love. Given to condescension toward these vapid males, Soderbergh is almost as detached as Chelsea is, falling into the trap of superficially treating the superficial.

But in Chelsea’s quickie tryst with a Hasidic jeweler, Soderbergh unearths a gem of a deadpan ending. It may be the safest sex ever filmed...and the most anticlimactic.


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