Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 78 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 29th, 2009
See it with someone you ****.
Steven Soderbergh and I don't see eye to eye. With the exception of the Ocean's films (and the bizarro Bubble), I haven't enjoyed any of the other films I've seen by the vaunted auteur, including both his mainstream (Erin Brockovich) or arty (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) films. Now that his nineteenth (!) feature The Girlfriend Experience is out, I'm not sure whether I like it or not, but I can certainly say that it continues Soderbergh's impressive run as a master of visual storytelling and experimental narrative.
Chelsea (porn actress Sasha Grey) is an upscale Manhattan call girl who charges two thousand dollars an hour to provide her clients with "the girlfriend experience," where it's not just about sex, but the illusion of emotional intimacy instead of just the feeling of sexual attraction. Everything seems to be under control in Chelsea's life (a good, understanding boyfriend in addition to her well-paying job), but when she meets an interesting client and her boyfriend goes on a trip to Vegas, the emotional core of her life is exposed in uncomfortable ways.
It's been a long time since I've been so fiercely ambivalent about a film as I am about The Girlfriend Experience. There's no arguing that the film sparkles with a diamond hardness, but only time will tell if it's really cubic zirconium creating the gleam. For now, here are the film's strengths:
* Steven Soderbergh. I don't tend to like his choice of material (both Erin Brockovich and Traffic make me want to retch), but it's hard to argue with Soderbergh's camera. He's made almost twenty films in the last twenty years, and his experience shows in his mastery of cinematic techniques. All that skill shows in The Girlfriend Experience. He's not at all afraid to blow out the highlights in one scene, and then make the shadows so dark in another that people's faces are hard to make out. He also knows exactly how to edit a scene, holding some shots longer than expected or cutting away early as fits his mood. It's not just shots Soderbergh knows how to edit; no, he's a master of slicing up narratives and serving them in an salad that asks the viewer to help sort out what is what. In The Girlfriend Experience he cuts between characters, back and forth in time, and around significant events to give them impact. It's an impressive display of cinematic prowess.
* Sasha Grey. Much has been made of the fact that this is Sasha Grey's foray into mainstream cinema after starring in over a hundred adult films. Honestly, that doesn't matter. There are no significant bedroom gymnastics on display, and Sasha doesn't show any more of her body than most Hollywood starlets have. I can't say if her pornographic past and/or present informed her portrayal here, but I can say that her primary strength is her ability to convey emotions through her facial expressions. She subtly moves between everything from joy to disappointment, and her personal journey is often told by Soderbergh in closeups, where her eyes are featured prominently. I won't prognosticate and say whether this will lead to other mainstream roles, but I don't think anyone else working in Hollywood could have done any better than Ms. Grey.
* Politicians. There's a huge theme of politics running throughout The Girlfriend Experience, and the story is set during the 2008 election season. Considering that the film seems so generally devoid of emotional content, the fact that a film about high-end prostitutes also features politicians leads to some rather blackly humorous moments in the film.
The film is also aided by a top-notch release on hi-def. The film was shot with a Red camera, which means it was born digital and it shows on this disc. Although there are a few scenes where it looks like the limits of the camera were reached (especially when Soderbergh shoots a scene with very high contrast), but even the difficulties are reproduced with appropriate fidelity. For audio we get a DTS-HD track that has a good dynamic range and clearly audible dialogue.
It's not packed with extras, but the disc has pretty much all the extras most fans would want. First up there's an alternate, unrated cut of the film that doesn't run any longer, but appears to contain some different shots. There's also an HDNet featurette that's an EPK-style piece that runs about four minutes with clips and talking heads. The true gem of the disc, however, is the commentary between Soderbergh and Grey. It's setup almost like an interview with Grey as the subject. Soderbergh asks questions about her career, her acting, and the film in general.
The Girlfriend Experience has a lot going for it, but several things keep it from being a total success:
* The script. I don't know what's going on with the script, which was penned by the gentlemen responsible for Rounders and Ocean's Thirteen, but neither the dialogue or the overall story work. I know Soderbergh is a fan of using non-actors sometimes, and there are certainly some less experienced thespians in this film, but that doesn't explain why the dialogue sounds so horrible. It's stilted in a way that sounds like it's trying to mimic regular speech but it never quite gets to that level of naturalness. Instead, it sounds like half-heard snippets of cafe conversation, which would be fine if any of the dialogue scenes took place in a cafe. Then there's the story, which doesn't seem to have much of a center or point. Soderbergh dresses that up with lots of quick cuts and cool cinematography, but at the end of the film I'm not sure what it's really about.
* The characters. It was fairly easy to care about Chelsea, but the rest of the characters felt a little under written, like cocktail-napkin sketches rather than fully realized individuals -- or perhaps stereotypes (like the creepy escort reviewer) rather than characters.
Fans of Steven Soderbergh's artier work are going to want to check out The Girlfriend Experience, while those that only know him through Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's films will probably be left disappointed. In either case, the strong audiovisual presentation and commentary with Soderbergh and Grey make this an easy hi-def release to recommend.
Although I don't think it's anything like having a girlfriend, The Girlfriend Experience is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R