Thursday, June 18, 2009

Review: The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience
(2009, Steven Soderbergh)

One of the great American directors working today, Soderbergh is a filmmaker who can comfortably slip into almost any genre. I haven’t seen all of the man’s projects, but more than enough to determine that he knows exactly how to handle almost any film genre. What’s particularly impressive is his ability to deliver high quality films, regardless of what kind of story he is telling, which actors are starring in the film or even what kind of camera he is using. He can make a slick, fun heist movie like Out of Sight with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, he can destroy and defy expectations and conventions of comedies like in Schizopolis (starring none other than the director himself), and he’s perfectly capable of producing a 4 ¼ hour long biopic about one of the 20th century’s most popular figures, Che Guevara in Che. Hollywood crowd pleasers (Oceans films), Oscar worthy efforts (Traffic, Erin Brockovich), art-house favourites (Che, Schizopolis), Soderbergh can, seemingly, do it all. His previous film, the epic Che, is now followed by one of his shortest films yet, The Girlfriend Experience, clocking in at a paltry 78 minutes. True to the ‘art house’ side of him, Soderbergh decided to mess with the chronological order of the events in the story and cast unkown actors and actresses. Actually, there’s a catch. Sasha Grey, who stars in the film, is in fact well known in some circles, but that’s because she’s a porn star.

Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is a relatively successful call girl (call her up, set up an appointment and she will act as your girlfriend for the night) in Manhattan who lives with her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), who is a personal trainer at an expensive gym. The film’s many scenes lay in out in various detail the fragile relationship these two young professionals have, Chelsea’s aspirations for further success and maybe even love, as well as Chris’s own search for greener pastures in his field. As is the case in several of the director’s previous works, very little, in fact nothing if I remember correctly, is told in chronological order. Soderbergh is clearly a fan of this method and I can understand why, as puts a very different perspective on individual moments in the lives of the characters. It reminds me of how people often reminisce about specific moments from their pasts, when we think ‘Oh, how that was a lovely tea party’ or ‘Darn, had I only woken up 10 minutes earlier.’ When a story is told in chronological order, everything meshes in well together, even though various scenes will undoubtedly stand out for some viewers. They all fit in easily, or less so depending on the quality of the film, into a single cohesive plot. With a movie like The Girlfriend Experience, what we are left with feels more like a wall of photographs, each one perfectly capturing a moment, but combined together, those moments can tell the story of someone’s life. It might not suit everyone’s taste, but it’s a technique I feel Soderbergh understands well and uses in convincing fashion, including in this film.

Which brings me to the individual scenes themselves. Admittedly, there isn’t a whole lot of storytelling at play here. I think that the film’s running length is partly responsible for that, but it was also a personal choice of the writers (David Levien and Brian Koppelman) and the director. There are conversations at the dinner table between Chelsea and Chris, conversations at a restaurant between Chelsea and potential business partners, conversations in the private rooms of clients, etc. It might all feel mundane to the average viewer, and it is pretty mundane when one thinks about it, but somehow the film manages to make it worthwhile enough. I don’t know how the call girl business functions, so it was rather interesting to listen in on these discussions. I don’t think the film delves all that deeply into the matter, but I nonetheless found a certain degree of pleasure in eavesdropping, for that’s really what the movie feels like, an opportunity to eavesdrop. Without a traditional, powerful narrative to propel the movie forward, one finds enjoyment in being awarded a slightly closer look than usual into the life of someone who, when on duty, probably keeps her private life tightly knit and to herself. Even though we don’t to know a whole lot about the character of Chelsea, there were still moments that brought her to life a little bit, such as when she is shopping for clothes and notices one of her clients (or former client?) out the window with another woman who, in a funny way, resembles her. There is this brief pang of frustration and disappointment. Because she lost a good client (money)? Because she may have actually enjoyed his companionship as he did hers? We don’t know for sure, but there are a few of these intriguing little moments sprinkled throughout the film that give the character of Chelsea some layers, even though they may not be terribly deep.

Speaking of Chelsea, I imagine this review can’t go on any longer without mention of Sasha Grey’s performance. There are, I’m sorry to alert my porn addicted friends, no sex scenes in the film, so the other kind of ‘performance’ shan’t be discussed. No, here Grey really is asked to act out a role for a character, a character that is perhaps a little too sure of herself, a little reserved, a little blazĂ© about the whole thing. At least that’s what I got out of her performance. That isn’t to say that it’s bad. On the contrary, I guess it was alright, although I’m not so sure she is given a whole lot to do. There is even a moment in the film when her character Chelsea retells one of her most recent sessions with a client, and explains that the man didn’t want sex or to kiss. He merely invited her to talk. I think this is what lies at the heart of a character like Chelsea, that is, she’s the hot woman one calls to take out, talk to, and probably get physical with. As long as she is looking fine, which she certainly does I might add, and is effective in ‘close quarters’, nothing else is actually required of her. I don’t think Chelsea even does all that much talking in the film. Many scenes have her mostly listening to other people talking to her rather her engaging in the conversation with anything intelligent or provocative to say. So once again, it brings me back to my original argument that what Sasha Grey specifically does in the film is fine, but I still don’t think she is doing very much.

This being a Soderbergh film, The Girlfriend Experience benefits from lush visuals and superb musical accompaniments. One of the better sequences in the film features a street drummer pounding away a very catchy and hip tune on his drum set. For the most part, the instrumental is non-diegetic sound, as the viewer sees a quick series of events in the lives of Chris and Chelsea transpire. It is only as the drummer concludes his performance that we finally see him in the flesh on a street in Manhattan. Truth be told, I don’t even quite remember what it is I saw as the music played as non-diegetic sound, I was merely enthralled by the performance. The movie has also has a very sleek, professional look to it. Soderbergh has a very fine eye for setting up visually stimulating shots and discovering camera angles that handle the right mood for individual scenes and getting the most out of them. He used the RedOne camera that everyone has been raving about recently, particularly since it people learned last year that the RedOne was used to shoot Che. For a camera that is supposed to be comparatively inexpensive, there is no question that it produces a great look for movies. Che looked fantastic and so does The Girlfriend Experience. It helps that Soderbergh himself is a great visual storyteller, arguably one of the better ones working today, so coupled with the great ‘bang for buck’ of the RedOne, the movie comes off looking rather stylish, while strangely retaining a certain realistic, almost documentary look. If for anything at all, I’d suggest watching the movie for its visual qualities.

Not reaching the heights of his great works, The Girlfriend Experience is still more than suitable curiosity. Not a whole lot happens, but that almost didn’t even matter to me because I still enjoyed it, sometimes for the individual moments, sometimes for the music, other times for the great cinematography. As a complete package, it’s definitely 'minor Soderbergh', but in the good sense, not Ocean’s 12 'minor Soderbergh'. I saw it, I was intrigued, I may watch it again, I may not. I suppose that in the grander scheme of things it does suffer from a ‘take it or leave it/ doesn’t really matter’ quality, but if you like cool looking movies, and most certainly if you enjoy art house Soderbergh, then don’t hesitate to catch this one.

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