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Tuesday
May262009

The Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh. One look at his directing resume on IMDb heralds an interesting result. No, I haven't seen every movie on that list, but the ones I have are nothing like The Girlfriend Experience. In fact, I was convinced during my screening that this wasn't the same Soderbergh I had become accustomed to, labeling whoever it was, for one reason or another, David. But no. This is indeed Steven Soderbergh, the man behind Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's films. Maybe it's because I haven't yet had the chance to see his more downplayed, independent productions, like Bubble, but The Girlfriend Experience left me baffled, in awe of the simplicity of its production, but confused as to its meaning, if one did indeed exist.

The Girlfriend Experience is about a young woman named Chelsea, played by real life adult actress Sasha Grey, a call girl whose clientele don't ask only for sex, but for the entire experience of having a real life girlfriend. She seems to be doing great for herself, running her own business, making thousands of dollars an hour and in a relationship with a weight trainer who accepts her lifestyle. After a new client catches her fancy, Chelsea believes there may be a connection and decides to pursue her desires, hopefully getting away from her customary life, even if that means taking a chance on compromising everything.

Most films, although not necessarily predictable, have something that lets you know that it is heading towards some type of conclusion. There's something of interest that, even when surrounded in mystery, keeps the story flowing. In The Girlfriend Experience, no such thing exists. You're not wondering where it's going to end up. You're wondering when it's going to start. There's never any indication that the movie is leading up to any type of conclusion, which is noted by the abrupt ending, where nothing is resolved.

Maybe that was the point. Chelsea's routine is monotonous, periodically succumbing to the sometimes sick pleasures of her clients, and she has no escape. Her dilemma has no foreseeable conclusion, so the film never provides one. When she finally sees an opportunity to run off and start anew, things all come crashing down on her and she is relegated back to where she began, hurt and afraid, her previous relationships shattered, with the exception of the manufactured relationships she sells on a day to day basis.

I apologize. Thus far, this hasn't been so much a film review as it has been a non-critical analysis of its many aspects, but The Girlfriend Experience is just that, an experience that requires careful deliberation afterwards, although even after my long and arduous thought process (much of which will not be typed here to avoid longevity), I still don't believe I've come to any real conclusion, except for the fact that I'm coming to love this film more and more. I walked out of the theater in ambivalence, but any movie that allows you to think and discover more about its intricate, yet simultaneously uncomplicated story deserves recognition, despite the occasional flaw.

At the start of this movie, it looked like Soderbergh was going to make an argument. It doesn't merely bring up our crumbling economy, it makes it a potent point in the lives of these characters, continually discussed through many different scenes. At times, I felt like a connection was being made between Chelsea's clients and America. Just as the characters in the movie spend their money frivolously, we do the same, wasting it on things that we don't need. But then it drops the economy stance and seems to wander towards nothingness. Did I miss something? Perhaps, but if it was trying to make a political point, it wasn't apparent enough to notice.

I also felt like the acting was sometimes hit and miss. Sasha Grey, a professional porn star, conducts herself with aplomb at times, playing her character on one note throughout. That may sound like a back handed compliment, but that's what her character called for. Chelsea's repetitive and misguided life echoed her attitude, so she did a fine job in her role. However, her amateurish acting ability shone through during some key scenes. During her date with the client who she starts to make a connection with, she is called on to genuinely laugh, but the problem is that you can tell it's artificial, a laugh produced solely because the script called for it. At other times, when she was supposed to be serious, it was apparent that Grey was attempting to hold back a real laugh so as not to ruin the take. It was distracting. I was infatuated with her performance on occasion, but once in a while, I could see why she was a porn star rather than a movie star.

Steven Soderbergh, despite the style different from the one I've become acquainted with, directs the movie exquisitely, knowing when to put the camera down and let his actors do the work, which he does quite frequently. At many points in the movie, more than I can count, the camera is positioned in one place and the actors play their parts in one take, with the camera never cutting. This was incredibly impressive, on the part of the director as well as the talent, and gave the film a more realistic, voyeuristic feel. I felt like I was watching real people, spying on their private lives, looking at things that I had no right looking at, which made the proceedings more personalized and grounded.

In my notes, I wrote, "It isn't the story that pulls this one through so much as the interesting direction," but now I've come to realize that isn't necessarily true. While Soderbergh's downplayed direction, putting faith in his actors by placing the camera in one spot and letting it role, was one of the key elements to the film's success, the story is just as prudent. It's not like other movies where you know where you stand on it as soon as it's over. No, this film requires reflection. It doesn't just ask you to think. It demands it. Although my review is now over and my score doled out, I feel like my opinion of The Girlfriend Experience will only grow over time, a mark of any great film.

The Girlfriend Experience receives 4/5

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