Sunday, June 7, 2009

That'll Be $2,000

The Girlfriend Experience:
4 out of 4

Sasha Grey was expertly cast as an escort named Chelsea who provides her clients with a "girlfriend experience." Grey has been in over one hundred porn films, and here, her "performance" is shocking in its authenticity. She wasn't selected because we body was going to be splayed about in sex scenes throughout the movie as there is only one fleeting glimpse of full-frontal nudity. It's surprisingly sexless for being a movie about an escort, and rightfully so. It isn't so much about the sex, but rather, what is involved in getting it. Grey provides the demeanor with which an escort would really act, and it's probably safe to say that she didn't have to do much "acting" here. She's a naturally born, still-life Barbie doll, and has the feel of a rising porn star, a young woman in her early 20s who appears innocent only on the surface. If you peer deeper into her eyes, you see that she's multi-layered and that she realizes what a sham it all is but that in the end the joke is very much on her. And in this respect, she's detached, cold, affectless, and generally not very likable. And for this film, she's a perfect match.

"The Girlfriend Experience" is one in a series of small, digitally-shot, semi-improvised films by director Steven Soderbergh like 2006's "Bubble." The movie focuses on Chelsea and her assortment of men, including her long-term boyfriend of eight months (Chris Santos) who is supposedly accepting of what his girlfriend does for a living. And yet, watching the two of them together, you get the sense that she doesn't treat him any differently than any one of her clients. Taking place during the days preceding the 2008 Presidential Election where the economic crisis is just getting underway, the characters within the film bring up matters of financial security a lot, especially Chelsea's clients. These are wealthy men she deals with as her services aren't cheap, and so she listens to them tell her how she should be investing. And yet, that's all part of her job. She must act like she cares about them, listen to them, cuddle with them, and joke around with them. Sex isn't required, but it's never off-limits. The main aspect of her job description is to offer an illusion of intimacy to men who could very well be married and have a family.

The movie keeps a keen eye on Chelsea as if it was a documentary on a real-life person and gives you a glimpse into this world Chelsea lives in that at first intrigues but then ultimately disgusts in its implications it has on our own society. Shot in an avant-garde style, there is interesting cinematography where the camera rarely moves with frequent stationary long takes. The frame rarely has its main characters in the center or even in focus; sometimes light fixtures in the background or wine glasses in the forefront get the focus instead. During one particular scene when Chelsea and her boyfriend are having a fight, Chelsea is sitting on the floor being blocked by a sofa. She appears slightly out of view in many other moments of the film, along with her clients who also play as an insignificant part of the frame in some moments. The fact is that Chelsea, just like her clients, is a vacant body simply moving among the rest of the concerned people during such hard financial times. She exudes a confidence that isn't merited because she may not have it all figured out like she thinks she does.

The progression of the film is not linear in that we jump back and forth through time, which makes different sequences have changing effects depending on how much information is revealed. One encounter we believe to be one thing turns out to be something entirely different upon another take, which warrants this surprisingly complex film a second viewing. Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" is a tantalizing and endlessly fascinating film about money, lust, delusion, and human nature, and it packs in quite the punch of bitter darkness in a consolidated 78 minutes.

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