Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

2009 Sundance Film Festival ★

Steven Soderbergh gave a Sundance audience a sneak preview of his nearly-completed movie The Girlfriend Experience. For the uninitiated, a “girlfriend experience” is a service provided by prostitutes, and includes kissing and other considerations. So as you might guess, this film is about a female escort—a high-priced New York call girl. To his credit, Soderbergh resists the temptation to be graphic and explicit. Nor does he either glamorize or degrade the profession. Like in the 2005 movie Bubble, he is aiming for unadorned realism, a glimpse into a life.

And so we watch Chelsea (Sasha Grey) making appointments, working on her marketing, dealing with self-doubt, courting reviews, taking notes, struggling with her boyfriend, confiding with friends and generally trying to find a slice of happiness in the world she has chosen. The cumulative effect on me was a sense of sadness and pity for her life of quiet desperation, for the inevitable psychological pain and emotional barriers that result from her lifestyle.

But that’s not all. The Girlfriend Experience is much more than that. It’s experimental film. It’s art. It’s pushing the envelope. To wit:

• It’s not linear. This has become a popular approach ever since Pulp Fiction. But generally it seems contrived—with Chris Nolan’s Memento being a notable exception. I kept scratching my head wondering why it was used in The Girlfriend Experience.
• The actors were mostly amateurs. The notable exception was the star, 20-year-old Sasha Grey, whose previous acting experience includes 150 porn films. (Yeah, I know, very sad deal.) The rest of the cast was chosen based on how their lives aligned with the characters in the film. Cool idea. Innovative approach. But not good for acting.
• The script was mostly improvised, making for some pretty flat dialogue.

The cold hard truth was that the story was slow and confusing and it was hard to empathize with any of the characters. The Girlfriend Experience had neither the cohesiveness of a drama nor the insight of a documentary. It was a make-believe life laid bare. Now to be fair, Soderbergh admitted that the movie wasn’t quite finished, although it sounded like film quality was the biggest issue. And for me and others in the audience, it felt like he was more concerned about the format and the lighting and the camera work than creating an engaging story. Good for film schools. Not so much for audiences.

Notes from Sundance
Steven Soderbergh is a Sundance icon and was involved in a special 20th anniversary reshowing of his Sex, Lies and Videotape. He opened the follow-up Q&A by quoting an Alec Baldwin line from State and Main: “Well, that happened.” Soderbergh told the audience he shot the movie over 16 days in October of last year on a $1.6 million budget. He said he was interested in Ms. Grey after reading an interview with her in the newspaper. The film was shot chronologically, then edited. Recognizing that the film wouldn’t please all tastes, he commented on the unusual improvisational approach: “It was kind of fun to watch … when you’re making it.”