A Harlot High and Low: Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience

by robbiefreeling
May 22, 2009 2:26 AM
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Sex plays a severely contradictory role in the oeuvre of Steven Soderbergh. While sex, lies, and videotape, Schizopolis, and Full Frontal—among Soderbergh’s “independent” films—portray sex as commonly pursued by deceitful means and engaged in for cynical reasons, Out of Sight and the Ocean’s franchise—among his Hollywood films—equate sex and its appeal with high-wattage, glossy magazine star power. Due to Soderbergh’s status as a filmmaker who seems more concerned with showing off his director-of-photography skills via technological gimmickry or pure stylization than developing consistent themes, it’s difficult to gauge which representation he believes to be true. Now, The Girlfriend Experience arrives as the first cinematic statement about the current economic crisis, and its exposé of the fantasy-weaving occupation of high-class prostitution and the ethically dubious financial class that employs its services would likewise be one more noncommittal Soderbergh “project” if not for this surprise: it works. Unlike in Bubble, with which it shares many small-scale qualities, Soderbergh’s detachment for once fits the world he depicts, and though The Girlfriend Experience is not a “personal” film in the traditional sense, it nonetheless successfully weds his visual preoccupations to his chosen material (written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien) in a way that feels pertinent, if still intentionally off-putting and distant.

The Girlfriend Experience has already achieved notoriety for starring 21-year-old adult film star Sasha Grey in her first major non-porn role as Chelsea (real name: Christine), escort for wealthy Manhattan wheelers and dealers, but the film itself is more Belle de jour than mature Traci Lords. Soderbergh has cited Red Desert and Cries and Whispers as influences on The Girlfriend Experience; the film’s major European art cinema source, however, seems to be 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Just as Godard employed Marina Vlady’s Parisian prostitute as a handy symbol for Gaullist France’s outer bourgeois prosperity and inner rot, Chelsea fittingly stands in for the alluring glamour and vacuous sexual rewards prized by both America’s privileged business class and those who look on it with envy. Emblematic bourgeois couple Vlady and her mechanic husband in 2 or 3 Things and Chelsea and her personal trainer boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos, one of the film’s many nonprofessional actors) in The Girlfriend Experience also share notable similarities, with the latter pair suitably updated to represent their disposability in relation to those with the money and power to use them. The jumbled, nonlinear episodes are just as sad and absurd as those in Godard’s satire, with Chris pathetically peddling a line of athletic wear to a store that can’t afford to overstock and Chelsea meeting with a sarcastic entrepreneur (film critic Glenn Kenny, in a hilariously sleazy bit) who pitches her involvement in work that borders on white slavery.

Click here to read the rest of Michael Joshua Rowin's review of The Girlfriend Experience.

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  • mjr | May 29, 2009 4:52 AMReply

    Gotcha on those two points. I find it interesting, though, that the "pervasive anxiety" fretted over by the Wall Street types (as well as the diamond seller) reflects an economic situation that most strongly affects low man on the totem pole Chris, the only character in the film whose emotional life is not based on the "transactional" (or else, a la Christine, superstition, her numerology system echoing the tenuous market surfing responsible for those transactions and transaction-like mentality.)

  • Mark Asch | May 28, 2009 2:18 AMReply

    To clarify, I mostly just infer that his lifestyle is unsustainable because he's a high-end diamond dealer in the midst of a depression. (Sasha is, in general, a luxury object purchased by people who did well in boomtimes; I think a lot of their lifestyles are unsustainable, thus the tone of the pervasive anxiety.) And when I say his thinking about purchasing a hug is maybe correct, I'm talking about the sense I get from the movie that its emotional universe is almost exclusively transactional.

    Fair 'nuff with the Jewishness, though.

  • mjr | May 27, 2009 9:11 AMReply

    Yeah, but the tone wasn't right. And the State of Israel comment is indicative of that -- why bring that up when it has nothing to do with the rest of the film? If anything it makes him less sympathetic -- his interest in the election boils down to that for his own interests (since the film defines him almost exclusively by his Jewishness) -- and a caricature. Also, I don't think it's ever stated that the guy's lifestyle is unsustainable. And what makes correct his thinking that the only way of obtaining a hug is purchasing one?

  • Mark Asch | May 27, 2009 6:46 AMReply

    I dunno, I really liked the last scene. The chubby Hasid didn't really seem like a punchline to me — he seemed more earnest, gentle and relatable than all those Muscle Milk-chugging finance douchebags (I refer to both Chelsea's clients and to Chris' — it's a fruitful parallel that I should probably write about at some point, but I digress already). It put a different, more human face on the movie, right in time for its summing-up: a guy who works selling diamonds (a luxury) advising that it's better to put money into gold (more reliable), and watching his completely unsustainable lifestyle fall away from him. (Telling Chelsea to vote for McCain, he seems to project his own insecurities onto Israel: "The state of Israel must be maintained.") The guy just... needs a hug; the irony, of course, and the whole point of the movie, is that still thinks, maybe correctly, that the only way to get a hug is to pay a hot chick in a La Perla thong to give you one.