Before tackling this film, the twentieth of Steven Soderbergh’s quite eclectic career, perhaps one should know just what the titular girlfriend experience is. A GFE, as it is called in those circles that know of such things, is a service provided by the highest of high-end call girls in which, in lieu of the typical wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am of prostitution legend and lore, they essentially act as a proxy girlfriend for their rich, and most probably lonely clients. I must admit to having had no idea about the existence of such a service-provider before first hearing of the imminent release of the film and reading up on the subject. According to interviews, Soderbergh himself had never heard of such a thing either, before hitting upon the idea while sitting in a bar with a somewhat more knowledgeable buddy of his whom gave him the whole skinny. Well known or not, like it or not, this is what Soderbergh’s twentieth film is all about.
And on top of such an unconventional movie idea, Soderbergh has done himself one better by casting an honest-to-goodness, flesh & blood, ass & tits porn star in the lead role. And then on top of all that, perhaps to keep us on our proverbial toes, he goes and chooses Sasha Grey, a twenty-one year old arthouse film fan who, according to her MySpace page, counts Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Gus van Sant, Gasper Noe, Catherine Breillat, Richard Linklater, David Gordon Green, P.T. Anderson, Harmony Korine, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Monte Hellman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Agnès Varda, Terrence Malick, Louis Malle, William Klein and (appropriately enough) Steven Soderbergh, among her filmic idols. She even claims to have tossed around the idea of using Anna Karina as her stage name.
Nicknamed the Erotic Enigma, Ms. Grey has stated that she considers what she does as something beyond mere porn, something akin to performance art. This quirky outlook on her career - a career that includes an Adult Video Award for best blow job in her resume (performance art or not) - combined with her arthouse desires, has made Ms. Grey the almost perfect host for this reality show-cum-experimental cinema piece that Soderbergh has concocted and put together after the aforementioned few drinks with his more "street-hip" pal. Here, playing a high end call girl or not, Ms. Grey finds herself in her first legitimate role, playing a GFE who goes by the name of Chelsea.
Soderbergh, who has made such disparate films as the festival favorite sex, lies & videotape, the big budget, star-filled crime caper Danny Ocean films (11, 12 & 13), the Oscar winning Traffic and Erin Brockovich, the minuscule digital video experiment Bubble, the epic two part Che Guevara biopic from a few months, back as well as the upcoming Jazz age retelling of Cleopatra. The film is shot guerrilla style, mostly by Soderbergh himself, using a hand held digital camera precariously positioned and re-positioned and re-re-positioned to act as a voyeuristic eye for the unwittingly passive viewer. This peekaboo motif of Soderbergh's works to turn this already taboo-seeming subject matter into something that seems even dirtier by our being no more than a peeping tom on the unsuspecting, and surprisingly human, Chelsea.
Showing five days in the life of Chelsea (as well as chronicling the days leading up to President Obama's glorious victory) and wavering back and forth in what it shows and how and when it shows it (the film is purposely non-linear) GFE swings effortlessly between Chelsea's $2000 an hour clients and her A-type personality boyfriend. Grey is perfect in the role. Not due to any great acting breakthrough (ala Meryl Streep emerging from a brothel) but due to her lack of such. Grey is a perfect stone cold dead fish in the role. Whether this is on purpose or just merely the girl can't act I am not sure. It could very well be a combination of both, after all she looks realistic enough for me in her porn poses on the internet! And I think she may very well have deserved that aforementioned AVN award. But I digress.
The real casting coup though is also Soderbergh's own little in-joke about his relationship over the years with critics. It is the casting of one of our very own in the role of, what else, a critic. Real-life film critic Glenn Kenny portrays a sleazy escort critic, who playing his mostly ad-libbed part in the most Rabelais of fashions (seemingly wallowing in his own filth) is the dark comic relief of the film. It is Kenny's Erotic Connoisseur, and not Grey's Chelsea (ironically she only has one brief nude scene) that plays out the dirty sexual wordplay and innuendo. A sort of fuck you and fuck me to the critical profession. Kenny's casting, and that of Grey, is integral to the idea surrounding Soderbergh's film. A sort of fuck you and fuck me to his own profession and to the Hollywood landscape that surrounds him.
Soderbergh peels away the veneer of Chelsea's profession but at the same time he reveals the fallacy around his own as well. Showing the corrupt world of the escort business, with its cutthroat necessities and back-stabbing realities, Soderbergh also shows, as thinly veiled allegory, the equally corrupt movie business, with its cutthroat necessities and back-stabbing realities. Soderbergh has always been the most passive of auteurs. Acting more as tour guide, or voyeur if you will, than director. Perhaps it is this very passiveness that gets the filmmaker through the nasty world that is Hollywood USA and allows him to make the movies he wants to make without much interference from the corporate world that has pretty much taken over the filmmaking industry. It is the same passiveness that we see in the stone cold dead fish eyes of Sasha/Chelsea.
In the end, with all his wrangling of genres and styles, Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience has taken the filmmaker full circle. From his debut twenty years ago, sex, lies & videotape, where the participants were obsessed with the camera, to now, where the participants are seemingly unaware of the camera, almost as if it had always been there - and I suppose in this day and age, it has been. The Girlfriend Experience is part cinema verite, part reality television, part socio-political allegory and part performance piece. There you go Sasha. Above all else though, this is a unique spectacle of filmmaking and well worth being sought out wherever one can find it. [07/02/09]