The Girlfriend Experience

Director    Steven Soderbergh
Starring    Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Philip Eytan, T. Colby Trane, Peter Zizzo, Ron Stein, Vincent Dellacera
Release    22 MAY (US) 4 DEC (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


5th December 2009

A film about the exploits of a call girl starring a real-life porn star? Hot DAMN! Sign me up for that flick! Oh wait, it's an experimental 'artsy' film by Steven I'm-between-big-budget-movies Soderbergh. (*sigh*) Okay, I guess that's good too.

But is it? Hot on the heels of his epic two-part biopic of Che Guevara, Soderbergh has dialled everything right down to make this intimate ode to the oldest job in the world and how it survives in today's economic climate. I know which film I would have preferred to see.

Sasha Grey stars as Chelsea, a high-priced escort who earns $2000 an hour for...well, doing whatever her clients want. What we learn from the five consecutive days to which we bear witness, however, is that companionship plays as much a part of her service as the sex. During this time, we see how her fondness for one particular client has serious repercussions on her relationship with her (until now) very understanding boyfriend.

First up, it should be noted that there is no sex in this film. I know, right? I almost watched it again to make sure I didn't miss anything. In editing out this part of the story, the film shifts focus to explore prostitution purely as an occupation. What is perhaps the most shocking aspect of the premise is now reduced to its most mundane elements, and this helps us to consider Chelsea's story from a more personal viewpoint.

[gallery]And to hammer the point home, most of the dialogue in this film is completely improvised. By, I might add, a cast full of mostly non-actors (Grey is the most experienced 'performer' in the film). When you take into account the interview between Chelsea and a journalist that appears throughout and bookends the film, we are given the overall sense of Chelsea's life being documented, as though, with each scene, we are intruding on an otherwise 'off camera' moment that wouldn't normally be seen.

This feeling is enhanced by Soderbergh's expert direction and editing. Framing scenes from a cold, calculated distance and then softening them with warm lighting makes us feel detached from otherwise tangible characters. And yet, presenting the film as a fragmented story, reels us in to unravel the timeline as if it were a puzzle to solve.

It is in these choices by Soderbergh that the strengths of the movie really shine through. As is his casting of porn actress Sasha Grey in the lead role. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with Grey's previous body of work, but I presume that it mostly consisted of moaning and loud claims of 'loving it'. Here, however, she gives the most subdued performance in the entire film. By giving a role defined by sex to a pornstar without actually showing anything explicitly, Grey's relative discomfort with 'real acting' works to portray Chelsea's own vulnerability.

That said, we are never really in doubt that the acting skills of the entire cast are not up to scratch. Where the improvised dialogue often seems forced, the performance of every character equally feels slightly amateurish. This, however, might be the fault of the film's relatively non-existent plot. For all the exploration of the 'everyday' life of a call girl, the film itself never really peaks or troughs.

There is perhaps one standout scene involving a cringe-worthy escort critic who candidly explains how he can make a difference to Chelsea's career by giving her a good review, but the consequences of this meeting are still never full explored.

In fact the film's main story seems to be the running joke that all of her clients complain about the global recession and how they are working through tough times. The joke being, of course, although never explicitly stated, that they are each still paying small fortunes for the pleasure of Chelsea's company. The humour, however, is still somewhat lost amidst the lacklustre narrative.

As with any experimental film, the execution is always more important than the finished product. Therefore, while Soderbergh's craftsmanship can be admired, the movie itself isn't quite so commendable. In any case, this call girl/pornstar film certainly isn't as good as the version I had in my head.

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