Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Heart of Gold? Only If It’s 24 Karat.

by Brandon Colvin

Detached, cynical, and sleek, multitasking auteur Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience locates within the upscale escort industry the urbanized ennui and pervasive isolation of a culture engaged in a self-destructive obsession with superficial transaction and endless commodification. Soderbergh – who produced, directed, wrote, photographed, and edited the film on a miniscule budget – cuts to the metaphorical heart of contemporary American society by centering The Girlfriend Experience around a high-class prostitute, Chelsea (controversially played by hardcore porn actress Sasha Grey), whose daily routine consists of a series of vapid sexual encounters, distant social performances, and stoically willful exploitations, all taking place within the glossy modernized environs of jet-black limousines, expensive hotels, and fashionable apartments. Using mostly non-professional actors playing roles very similar to their actual lives – reminiscent of Bresson’s theories on performance and “models” – The Girlfriend Experience is as stylistically detached from its subject matter as its characters are from their own lives, employing obstruction, monotony, and muted drama to emphasize the disconnected banality of exchange rates, investment opportunities, and self-marketing.

Swirling with the hushed political and economic anxiety of its setting (just before the ’08 presidential election), Soderbergh’s film tracks Chelsea and her live-in boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a physical trainer who struggles with the reality of Chelsea’s line of work, as they navigate through what seems like a perpetual stream of bullshitting businessmen and power-centric professionals. There is no sincerity – only straight-talk alternating with double-talk, both being equally impersonal. The two lovers are the only characters in the film that even appear to genuinely grasp for anything that might be emotionally substantial, attempting to disrupt their hollow routines for a chance to recover themselves and their lives. Their actions, however, are futile, and the film is haunted by an aura of understated disappointment, an inability to transcend calculated transactions for something spontaneous, something fulfilling – something real. Ironically, despite its lack of sincerity, The Girlfriend Experience feels heartbreakingly factual, no doubt due to its fantastic casting and effectively uninvolved style.

Soderbergh’s decision to cast his actors as themselves is really what makes the film come to life. Delivering their lines with a humdrum sense of normalcy and ordinariness, The Girlfriend Experience’s character are believable to the point of being nearly uninteresting. Their selfishness and self-consciousness are so utterly self-centered that one feels an understandable lack of sympathy for them, any sense of concern coming from sheer proximity and duration. This, of course, is Soderbergh’s aim, to expose the meaningless pattern of their lives for what it is – a series of self-serving manipulations. Who better understands this than the economists, stockbrokers, CEOs, and sexual performers themselves? Even if they don’t communicate this consciously, the actors’ authenticity lends a certain believable automatism to their performances, epitomized wonderfully in Chelsea’s monotone voiceovers recounting the matter-of-fact details of her encounters with various clients, transforming sexual pleasure into a disinterestedly recited laundry list.

The fractured and languid visual rhythms, distanced framings, and antiseptic locales of The Girlfriend Experience accentuate the film’s sense of unconquerable detachment. Soderbergh’s editing style throughout the film alternates between rapid, impressionistic successions of architectural, connective shots and lethargic long takes of conversations and mundane behavior, all of which are repeatedly joined by dialogue sound bridges and a brilliantly low-key score. Reflections, lighting fixtures, metallic surfaces, and skyscrapers are featured in most of the fleeting quick cuts, establishing the cold mood of shallow sleekness and formulating a disorienting landscape, a clashing mish-mash of indistinguishable urban settings and painfully modern design. The film’s slow scenes are even more evocative of The Girlfriend Experience’s banal tone, lingering with bored attention to the pathetic events of Chelsea’s life and imparting a feeling of empty tedium to her circumstance, as well as to that of those around her.

Nearly every shot in The Girlfriend Experience exudes the distanced quality of Chelsea’s life. Featuring mostly medium and long shots that are almost always obscured by foreground objects or in which the characters are out of focus/frame, the film’s compositional approach is removed, like visual eavesdropping, but more a result of the walls erected by the characters to sequester themselves from real contact and connection than any sort of sly attempt at observational realism on Soderbergh’s part. The detached editing patterns and distant shot compositions combine with the minimalist design of the various domiciles and locations to give the film the overall ambiance of a mildly occupied airport. Repeatedly throughout the film, the somber sounds of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports seem as if they would provide the perfect soundtrack to the clean-lined, impersonal, public isolation that dominates much of The Girlfriend Experience. Indeed, the characters talk and talk but communicate very little, their real feelings coming through only in brief moments between financial concerns. Tragically separated from one another by their self-interested obsessions with preserving a certain affluent lifestyle, the characters are as alone as strangers casting glances across a row of seats in the waiting area of sleepy terminal.


Chuck W said...

Goddamn, Brandon. Some monstrous good writing in this review. This is prose that pops and percolates with all sorts of goodness. Great work--it's a real treat to read!

The film is damn fine too--definitely the best of Soderbergh's digital experiments.

I also doubt that any other film this year can top it's absurdly stunning final shot (maybe Antichrist?).

Brandon Colvin said...


I definitely thought the film was pretty great. And, you're right, that closing shot/scene is phenomenal.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen this film yet (I will be on Thursday though), but I am not sure that Sasha Grey is as controversial a choice as you say.

The fact that it is such a low budget film which is outside of the mainstream means it cannot be too controversial. I mean, it is not like Sasha is in the next Jane Campion movie or 'Ocean's 14.' I mean, I am surprised no one made a fuss when Katie Morgan was in 'Zack and Miri Make a Porno.' Also, Sasha was already in the horror film , 'Smash Cut.'

As well, the porn industry is becoming so integrated into the thoroughfares of the mass media, that I am surprised that more porn starts are not in the mainstream. The blending is becoming insane: Paris Hilton's self made porn or Chloe in 'Brown Bunny' (blending tee line of porn and art film, much like TGE).

Great review though. I really cant wait to see it. I mean, I can only think of 2 bad Soderbergh films. The rest are pretty much brilliant.

Brandon Colvin said...

Regarding the Sasha Grey issue, it seems to be the general focus of most speculation about the film and was definitely a marketing tool because of its slightly intriguing shock value. I'm not saying I personally found it controversial, but people seem, on the whole, very hesitant about her. Both Roger Ebert and the Village Voice had pieces that paid a lot of attention to Soderbergh's decision to cast a porn star. I mean, this is a film by a Best Director Oscar winner. It doesn't get a whole lot more legit than that.

As far as Soderbergh goes, if you're a fan, I don't think you'll be disappointed at all.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. I feel like a wave of porn-to-mainstream transitions may be coming, although at a trickling pace, especially with art house films in which boundaries regarding sex (specifically unsimulated sex) are being pushed further from year to year.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Catherine Breillat!

On Katie Morgan being in "Zack and Miri..." and Sasha Grey being in "Smash Cut," I'll throw out the possibility that no one made a fuss about these due to generic expectations. Who (in the general filmgoing populace) would expect to take a comedy or horror film as seriously as a drama? A bleak, sex-centric drama directed by an Oscar winner at that.

Also, has anyone read Soderbergh's book "Getting Away With It" with Richard Lester? I have a friend who highly recommends it. He even claimed that it will be taught in film theory courses in the future. Not having read it, I can't say. But I'm paying the recommendation forward.

(And I agree that this is a great review, Brandon. Kudos.)