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.
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