Posted: August 25, 2011 in Movies (G), Screenings

BAMcinématek  is showing Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience as part of the 10 Years Of Magnolia Pictures series celebrating the truly invaluable independent distributor of terrific films.

By design, The Girlfriend Experience isn’t the highest-profile or showiest picture of Soderbergh’s fascinating, versatile career.   It’s small, quick, and painful, like a lightning jab to the gut.  At an admirable 77 minutes, it doesn’t have time to waste time.  The running time is also thematically appropriate, as The Girlfriend Experience, nominally the story about the relationship between a high-priced escort and a personal trainer, is just as much a story about the recession which has been kicking America’s ass for the last couple years.

Soderbergh shot this movie quickly and cheaply, in order to preserve its timeliness. Unfortunately for everybody, what was timely and prescient in 2009 has remained just plain timely today.  The story takes place in 2008, during the presidential election, and all of our heroine’s clients seem to want to talk to her about that and also the stock market crash.  Plenty of them are businessmen.  They talk to her like she’s their hot, bored, disinterested girlfriend, which she is, to a point: The call girl is interested in investing too.  Soderbergh cannily and effectively cast the porn star Sasha Grey in the main role, and she gives a nice, icy, business-like performance, even when confronted with some disturbing prospects.  (She meets with a horrendous man late in the film, “The Erotic Connisseur”, who is an influential reviewer of escort services but also a vomitous misogynist who wants her to earn all five stars.  It’s an in-joke because prominent film critic Glenn Kenny plays the role, but his performance is excellent and horrifying.)

The Girlfriend Experience is told with an experimental, semi-linear story structure.  Most of the music in the film comes from external sources, such as street performers and stereos, and the dialogue by screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who also appears in a small role) is hyper-naturalistic.  The way the film is edited is not naturalistic, however: It’s deliberate, sometimes languid, and jumps around chronologically. It forces the viewer to focus.  Soderbergh shot the movie himself, under his frequent pseudonym Peter Andrews, and edited it himself, and the whole thing is a strong argument for digital filmmaking.  Even if you don’t agree that the movie is effective, you have to be excited by the idea of a filmmaker turning around a film of this quality in a short amount of time while also engaging in relevant modern ideas.  I also respect the more clinical, devil’s-advocate position that Soderbergh seems to be taking: It calls on each audience member to have and then consider their own personal reaction.

Personally, I felt queasy during the entire thing.  Maybe it’s my awful diet, but maybe it’s also the subject matter.  Prostitution, no matter how lucrative it seems to be in this movie, by definition turns a person into an exploitable object.  Or does it?  Chelsea, the main character, travels in some majorly wealthy circles in some majorly fancy clothes and apartments, and isn’t that what we’re all trained by TV and fashion magazines to aspire to, by any means necessary?  Chelsea doesn’t see herself as a victim, so labelling her as such may be more of a judgment than a fact.  It’s why casting such a popular pornstar as Sasha Grey was an effective filmmaking decision.  Her very presence raises the philosophical questions which the movie extends.  Not to equate the two careers, because I actually don’t personally believe that prostitution and pornography are the same thing, but by definition, both professions do involve turning one’s sexuality into a commodity. The frequent argument made by pornstars is that what they do is a choice, a sometimes empowering one at that.  That may even be true for them, but it still seems like turning something as personal as sex into saleable wares is some kind of moral compromise, and definitely sort of sad.  Then again, isn’t that what I’m trying to do with my writing?  No wonder I was disturbed.


  1. Ryan McNeely says:

    Thanks for sending me the link, man. This is a really good piece. You’ve clearly spent some time thinking about this. Mine was a bit more quick and dirty (if you’ll pardon the phrase!) since my turnaround time was even more condensed than Soderbergh’s. You’re right, it is a difficult watch, but I was pleasantly surprised by how thematically layered it was. Although perhaps I shouldn’t have been, considering the man behind the camera

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