It's been twenty long years since Steven Soderbergh took Cannes by storm and proved that independent films could make money with his debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape. That loaded title, with all of its scandalous implications, played no small part in the film's buzz; those who bought a ticket, however, would be disappointed to learn that it wasn't really about sex at all, but about intimacy and honesty.
The casting of hardcore star Sasha Grey in the leading role of Soderbergh's new picture The Girlfriend Experience is the 2009 equivalent of that dirty title; it promises more raunch than the movie itself delivers. It, too, is about intimacy and honesty. But the director isn't repeating himself; much as Scorsese did with The Departed, Soderbergh is making a film that is, in many ways, a culmination of his recurring themes and unique style, and is also something altogether new.
From the opening moments (an intriguing montage of ambient music and striking visuals), we're watching a mature, accomplished filmmaker who is in absolute control of his material. His confidence and maturity have never been clearer--nor has his efficiency (The Girlfriend Experience clocks in at a brisk 77 minutes, in a stark contrast to his last picture, the two-part, four-plus-hour Che). And the damn thing is just beautifully shot; using the Red high-def video camera, Soderbergh (lensing under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews) creates a series of elegantly composed tableaux; he seldom moves his camera for effect, so when he does, it actually means something.
And yes, it stars a porn star. I'm not sure what exactly the director saw in Grey that made him think she could carry a real drama (something not really hinted at in any of her, ahem, other work). Whatever the reason, his risk pays off big. It's not stunt casting; she's terrific, incredibly natural, altogether believable, and this is not a lightweight role. It could just be that old saw about everyone being capable of one great performance (playing themselves), but I doubt it; this is an actor, and a good one.
Grey stars as Chelsea, a high-priced Manhattan call girl. We're introduced to her when she's on a date; after many of these dates are seen, we hear a voice-over of her taking a quick and businesslike inventory of what she wore, what they did, and whether another date was made. We also meet her live-in boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), who works as a personal trainer and seems to be okay with what she does, provided she doesn't break their rules. No prizes for guessing if she does.
It seems strange to relate the plot as if it's some sort of linear narrative; it minimizes the experience of the film. Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who, improbably, also penned Soderbergh's Ocean's 13) and editor Mary Ann Bernard (whoops, that's another Soderbergh alias) scissor the story into shreds, hopscotching around in the timeline, the cuts drawn organically from key words or ideas. They're shaking up the form here; a fairly standard narrative is being told, but in an unexpected and unpredictable way. As a result, we don't see the familiar gears of the three-act structure grinding, the strings being pulled; they take the air out of the mechanics of the plot, and manage to skip some of the triter scenes altogether, since we're not seeing things in order so we can fill in the gaps.
If all of this sounds disorienting, fear not. Yes, there are stretches (particularly towards the beginning) where you're not quite sure what's going on and what Soderbergh is up to. But even when you're in the woods a little, the film always keeps your attention, and the pieces ultimately come together beautifully.
Soderbergh's 1999 effort The Limey was much the same way; the editing of that film was even more jagged, but in its own quiet way, the cutting was a revelation that, frankly, I expected to literally change the way we made movies, or at least the way Soderbergh made them. I ended up being wrong on both counts until now--The Girlfriend Experience is the closest film he's made to that one, stylistically, in the decade hence. But again, this film is its own beast. That said, it continues his tradition of subverting expectations and making films that are boldly, and sometimes inaccessibly, experimental. Previous projects in that vein (Full Frontal, Solaris, Bubble) have met with everything from indifference to outright hostility, and if you didn't like those, you won't like this one either. You've been warned.