Monday, December 7, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

Artistically speaking, Steven Soderbergh is nothing less than an enigma. Twenty years ago he made his directorial debut with 1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape. His efforts made him an indie film hero, and, ironically, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Some of his best work has also gone largely unnoticed since. Take 1999's The Limey, for example, a highly-stylized crime thriller starring Terence Stamp, or, more recently, the two-part biopic Che, in which Benecio del Toro plays the oft-posterized Marxist Revolutionary with a subtle sense of terror and acute pathos.

However, Soderbergh's also not one to shy away from the mindlessly mainstream. He directed Ocean's 11, and later, Ocean's 12 and Ocean's 13. Nearly a decade ago, a year before he put forth the remake of Ocean's 11 and the first of the Ocean's franchise, he was nominated not once, but twice, in the same category for an Oscar as Best Director of both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, winning for the latter. Furthermore, some of Soderbergh's most enigmatic zest feels like misplaced and unnecessary affectation: Reading through the credits of his films, you'd never realize that he often serves as his own cinematographer and film editor under the psuedonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Berand respectively.

Make no mistake, though. When it comes to contemporary film, Soderbergh is often dubbed a so-called "genius." And, twenty years after his debut, he's finally pieced together a follow-up to Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Sort of, if not directly anyway. 2009's The Girlfriend Experience packages itself as the "mainstream debut" of adult film actress Sasha Grey. Forget for a moment that the phrase "mainstream debut" is somewhat of an oxymoron in this case, that a "debut" almost always precludes a parade of future performances, performances Grey might never get a chance at precisely because she's a porn star. Because, in fact, Grey is the true revelation of the film. The plot tells the story of Chelsea, a 2000$ a night escort whose clientele is Manhattan's upper class. Chelsea offers her clients more than sex; she provides them a listening ear and a beautiful shoulder to cry on. In short, she provides The Girlfriend Experience. But, as the economic crisis of 2008 unfolds, Chelsea too begins the feel the downswing of the market. So, too, does her boyfriend, Chris, a personal trainer who seems mostly benign toward her profession, so caught-up is he on whether or not his own clients will be able to afford to have him train them anymore. Survival requires that their collective tension is thus diverted from each other. Soon, personal crisis follows, and it's Chelsea's performance as a girlfriend that's called into question by Chris.

The cinematography, artistically done by Soderbergh himself, feels like high-class surveillance footage. Most of the angles from scene-to-scene are fixed. Often, set pieces, like couches or counter tops or potted plants, block our views of characters' faces as the dialogue unfolds. The film creates a strikingly vague voyeurism. The plot itself is told out of sequence, and it takes some time for the viewer to piece things together in the first half an hour of the movie. But, as the film nears it's denoument, we're left to question how much objectivity and awareness Chelsea still possesses when it comes to the illusions over which she, at first, seemed in complete control, illusions which have only left things shattered, personally and professionally. As an actress, Grey is smartly understated. But she's certainly genuine, and it's her quiet performance (not Soderbergh's)--in particular her willingness to show and suppress emotion at the same time--that steals the show. One is left to wonder, then: How much of the film is an illusion after all? Is Grey really acting, or playing a character she's embodied for years, albeit under altogether different lighting? Is there any way we, as viewers, or Grey even, can begin to answer these questions?

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