The nature of experiments is that you're never going to know how they turn out until they are done. Some elements will yield the hoped for results, some fall short. And some things turn out better than expected. The element of surprise leads to new inspiration. Given the tepid response to Steven Soderbergh's recent excursion into digital verité , the nonlinear The Girlfriend Experience, you'd think the great director had finally fallen off his high wire and his constant cinematic daring had lead him to go splat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, a filmmaker working on the fly and without concern for narrative convention can demand a lot of the audience, but Soderbergh is a director who should have earned our trust by now. Be it his turning away from glitz in Ocean's Twelve or the pseudo-documentary K Street or even the gonzo id explosion of Schizopolis, he's taken us down these roads before and he's always found plenty on the way. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. They are wrong.
The Girlfriend Experience is, at its heart, the portrait of a call girl. The title refers to a particular high-end service where the escort acts not just as a sex partner, but in some degree as the client's girlfriend, be it out in public or private intimacy. In such cases, conversation can be as necessary as the buyer's particular peccadilloes. In the case of this film, the girlfriend-for-hire in question is Christine, who goes by the name Chelsea and is played by adult film actress Sasha Grey. Chelsea is a smoky beauty, a girl of quiet charms. She listens and responds and mostly leaves room for the men to indulge the illusion of being in charge. Most of her clients are well-to-do businessmen, and so quite a few of them give Chelsea advice about what to do with the money they pay her. This is of particular importance given that The Girlfriend Experience is set during the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election, when the financial crisis was just getting underway. There is talk of the impending bailouts and how they will not be enough. The hole in the system is seemingly too big to fill.
This could be seen as a description of Chelsea, as well, that she has an emotional hole that is too large for any one man to fill, but I think this would be too simplistic. Rather, Soderbergh and his writing duo David Levien and Brian Koppelman, who also wrote the last Ocean's movie, are instead juxtaposing Chelsea's role against this larger turmoil in order to examine how she herself has become commerce. Through her various relationships, both professional and personal, the men she encounters all try to steer her the way they believe she should go. Part of her job is to reflect back to them what they want to see, but how much of herself is really in there? She has her own boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), whom she seemingly shares her real self with, and who is also a bit of a hustler. He's a personal trainer whose job it is to sell the promise of a better body to his clients, most of whom won't likely achieve the goal. He also wants to have his own clothing line, and he ends up playing with some high rollers who fly him to Vegas on their private jet. He initially turns that down because Chelsea can't go. Is he devoted, or is he just wanting to keep an eye on her? His jealousy is not necessarily misplaced, as Chelsea feels herself drawn to a new client, a screenwriter in New York from out of town (Timothy Davis).
The Girlfriend Experience has the appearance of being a film largely composed in the editing room. Yet, the various pieces that Soderbergh, who both shot and cut this movie himself, dismantles and reassembles suggest that there is at least some kind of map, that Levien and Koppelman devised the tools with which he would need to work. The narrative is told out of order and jumping around various continued encounters between Chelsea and other people. We see her at work with a selection of clients, we see her talk to her accountant, a web designer, and a business manager. More important, though, are the extended conversations that we see spliced together and interwoven throughout the film. A gal pal (Christina Nadeau) and fellow escort she uses as a sounding board, a lecherous online critic (Glenn Kenny) who wants a freebie, and a predatory reporter (Mark Jacobson) looking to break through her armor and get her story. Most everyone, excepting her female friend, want something from Chelsea. Every encounter is a transaction of some kind, and in each case, she must pretend that she needs what they offer while also protecting herself and maintaining control.
Then, of course, there is also the boyfriend and the new lover. We never quite get a sense of what Chris' feeling is toward Chelsea. He fights for her, sure, when it seems like he is losing her, but he never really engages her. When she expresses her fear that a new girl on the scene is going to threaten her business, he cheers her up with empty words. On the other hand, when she first meets Tim, he immediately shifts the focus off himself and on to her. Chelsea is visibly distraught after her encounter with the critic, a particularly noxious creep who calls himself "the Erotic Connoisseur." The smug voiceover that he provides nails the purple prose of many of us internet commentators perfectly, and Soderbergh places it so that it accompanies Chelsea's worst emotional humiliation. Tim listens to Chelsea's story. Really listens. He then takes her out on a date, flipping the tables and giving her a boyfriend experience. As far as we can see, it's the first time anyone has been with her just to be with her. He even gets to use her real name.
Much has been made of the casting of Sasha Gray in the title role, and it would be easy to assume that Soderbergh chose a porn star just for the sake of publicity. If that were the case, however, one would expect him to be far more exploitative of her assets. Instead, the director smartly stays out of smutty territory. To have done otherwise would have been to have the focus fall on the wrong things. Instead, he wants to use Gray's image to his advantage as a storyteller, to play with audience expectations. Surely her chosen profession provides special insight into Chelsea's character, of projecting an image of oneself that appears to be showing everything but is really showing nothing at all. To say this is all the role requires, however, would be a severe misreading. The scenes where she cries or expresses herself more vehemently show obvious sparks of acting talent, but it's the times when the actress is alone that are the true tests. Gray has more than empty charisma. In simple, seemingly throwaway scenes where she crosses the street or silently enjoys a cocktail, she shows the full extent of her screen presence. The solitary world of this lonely girl is a complete construct, and here we see her peeking out from behind the barricade.
I think one could stretch the meaning of The Girlfriend Experience to encompass a metaphor about filmmaking, or of any art as an economic product. My guess is Soderbergh's insight into a woman like Chelsea extends from his own struggles as an artist working in a business that is all about the bottom line. For as good as he is at bending more conventional pictures to his will (The Informant!, made after The Girlfriend Experience, being a good example), one gets the sense that he must constantly fight against compromise. That's why he has taken so much more control over the years. I imagine The Girlfriend Experience, much like his much more naked Schizopolis, is the filmmaker peeking out of his own barricade and seeing what he can get away with. Working with the Red One camera, he shoots everything digitally, using natural lighting and striving for an improvised, off-the-cuff documentary feel. In this film, he appears to be intentionally going against common composition, preferring long takes and middle-distance shots to the usual cut-and-paste conversations. He sometimes focuses on a foreground detail and buries his actors in the background or puts them right up front, only to blur them out and let the crowd behind them swallow them up. At the same time, he's not afraid to fill the whole frame with Gray's face, searching for the secret intricacies of her expressions.
The Girlfriend Experience is not a perfect film. In truth, its statements about commerce are a little heavy handed, and it's hard to tell whether we are supposed to be fascinated by the money men or disdainful of them (I'm guessing that's because Soderbergh was both of those things). The cutesy intro where Chelsea and her "date" talk about movies is amusing, but it's also a little too obvious, a dose of Metafiction 101. But again, that takes us back to the nature of experiments. An artist can sometimes only hit these highs by falling on his face once or twice on the way. You also risk alienating the many for the pleasure of the few, even though you hope it's the other way around. As it stands, The Girlfriend Experience is still looking for more fervent fans (only 60%? Screw you, Rotten Tomatoes!), but hopefully the film's arrival on DVD will convert a few more to the cause.
This disc boasts an "unrated alternate cut" of The Girlfriend Experience, which I'll admit to having watched first this time around, having previously seen this movie via a cable on-demand service. Like Soderbergh's Bubble, this film was released as a multi-platform experience, hitting theatres, the internet, and cable simultaneously. Watching the unrated cut, I didn't see any huge difference from the version I had seen before. All I noted was that it was missing the scene that came after the closing credits on the non-theatrical versions; a quick check revealed that this is also missing from the main version. (It involves Chelsea bathing a client.) Not sure what the reason for leaving that out is, but some of the differences in the cuts are discussed in the commentary track, which is how I watched the main version. The changes aren't extensive, just certain massaging of the structure, some material moved, etc. One noticeable addition is a scene with a Q-tip, one that is discussed by the character's in the main cut, and is actually more impactful in the original version for not being seen. The alternate cut is accessed through the special features menu.
Spanish subtitles are available, as is English Closed Captioning. The Spanish subtitles are not available on the alternate cut.
The only other extra is the 5-minute promo piece, "HDNET: A Look at The Girlfriend Experience," again feauring Soderbergh and Gray.
Trailers for other Magnolia movies play before the disc loads and are also accessible from the special features menu.