Monday, November 2, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

Of the few Soderbergh films I've watched, I tend to get bored before the end of them, even with Traffic, a flawed but epic tale. I don't know if it's me (likely) or some mysterious element to his scripts that makes them run out of steam in the last act, but I simply find that his stories end before he turns off the camera. The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh's latest low-fi counterpart to a big-budget picture (Che), surprisingly does not suffer from this "phenomenon." Drag still exists, but Soderbergh has spread it out so much throughout the picture that it largely dissipates and prevents this 77-minute feature from going off the rails.

For the story of a high-price escort, Soderbergh didn't mess around and hired real-life porn star Sasha Grey. Her Chelsea charges $2000 a night for the titular service, which concerns companionship over mere sex. Her clients are wealthy businessmen, many married with children. These men want someone to talk to, someone they can bore with whatever their concerns are at the moment, and the sex is just the cherry on top. Barely in her 20s, Chelsea has developed a clinical, professional approach to sex, viewing it with detachment and even mild intellectual curiosity. Incidentally, so has Grey, and that aspect of the real life sex performer makes her perfect for the part.

Set during the final days of the 2008 election and the collapse of the financial system, The Girlfriend Experience slyly, somewhat satirically, frames the fall of capitalism as we know it from the perspective of a prostitute. Those businessmen who pay ridiculous sums of money to "rent" her out for the night spend almost all of their time pouring out their worries about the economy. Some maintain, or at least present, a cavalier attitude toward the situation, urging Chelsea to simply vote Republican and keep her capital in cash for the moment. Others can scarcely think for fear of the future. There are subtle indications of the shifting paradigm throughout the film; when Chelsea leaves one client, he's so consumed on the phone with business matters that he does not even stand to hug or kiss or even shake her hand goodbye.

Of course, the men who cry on Chelsea's shoulder are the same ones who brought about their ruin in the first place. Deep down they understand that, but their fear blinds them to the coming crash, and it's only fitting that they turn in this hour of need to a representative of the world's oldest profession, one that has survived the fall of empires and economic upheaval. Chelsea herself comes to represent capitalism and the excess of consumerism: she's reduced a primal human urge and pleasure into a business venture, and she has conversations with another escort as well as a seedy escort "critic" about how she can get her name out there more to increase her rate. Why do you think a journalist tails her asking her about her life as so much of national importance is happening all around them?

This side of her character is what gives her boyfriend Chris (the weakest aspect of the film by far) an excuse to exist: if Chelsea is a distillation of the consumerist ideology that drove our financial system into the ground, then Chris symbolizes the role of the "average Joe" in that ruin. He knows what Chelsea does for a living, understands that the rich pay massive sums of money to do with her as they please, yet he accepts that. He only raises objections when Chelsea expresses an interest in a writer from Los Angeles, a break from the trend of bankers and suits. In Chris Chelsea has her own version of the girlfriend experience; she treats him with the same level of affection as she does her clients, only this time she's the one who gets to vent. When Chris walls himself off out of jealousy, she finds that emotional outlet in the writer.

Interspersed between the narrative is blurry footage of a group of young male businessmen on a trip to Las Vegas. Removed from the timeline of the rest of the story, these scenes show Chris on the plane with these men, the people who hire him as a personal trainer. But even if Soderbergh had no excuse to insert this footage, it deepens his message: these arrogant, pampered fools, so obsessed with appearances and with increasing their profits in times of economic stress, are no different from high-class prostitutes like Chelsea. In a system that values wealth over everything, it doesn't matter what you do to get to the top so long as you get there.

The film's broken structure might alienate some, but I imagine the biggest bone of contention will be Grey's acting. A fan of Jean-Luc Godard and other purveyors of high cinematic art, Grey certainly doesn't play Chelsea as an airhead simply there to smile and nod and strip for customers (Soderbergh actually had her watch Godard's Vivre sa Vie a basis for what he wanted from the role). Her Chelsea has a beautiful, innocent young face, but her eyes are as hardened as a veteran's. Whether this is an affectation or the natural result of her day job, Grey uses it to create a person who, like all those bankers and traders, projects an unwavering self-confidence that reveals itself to be a façade concealing great trepidation about a changing world. I'm not convinced that Grey has a career in the movies ahead of her (well, this kind of movies, at least), but she manages to add a facet to Chelsea's detachment that prevents the character from slipping into the ennui trap that so many fall into these days.

I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about The Girlfriend Experience as I was watching it. Some scenes feel totally unnecessary, yet within the larger context they flesh out the first fictive film to seriously address the economic crisis. I felt that the textual interactions of Chelsea and Chris largely grated, yet their deeper meanings make them fascinating detours in the story. But when you get right down to it, The Girlfriend Experience demands a certain amount of our attention for its final shot, of a client telling Chelsea to invest in gold and of the importance of voting McCain, whom he believes will work harder to preserve Israel. Finally he shuts up and embraces Chelsea, and suddenly all the walls crumble, and he holds her breathing raggedly as he clings to something that he might never see again.


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