Steven Soderbergh has always been known for his experimental filmmaking. Whether it is the non-linear plot construction of The Limey or the ultra strange and seemingly very personal Schizopolis, Soderbergh is not afraid to toy with structure and the way stories are told.
Soderbergh’s newest film, The Girlfriend Experience, continues the director’s fresh and unique way of presenting his films. The Girlfriend Experience stars porn starlet Sasha Grey, venturing into uncharted territories as he acts in her first non-adult film and is the look inside the life of a call girl, Chelsea (Grey) and how she deals with work and life outside of it with her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos).
What makes the film so experimental is the use of Grey as the leading lady of the cast. When people see Soderbergh’s name, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he can create art. He was behind the Oscar-nominated film Traffic and rejuvenated independent American cinema with sex, lies, and videotape. The attachment of a porn star’s name to his, while odd, isn’t all that strange when you consider the body of his work over the years. Where other "serious" directors might think of using Grey in a film as a joke, Soderbergh seemed to embrace the chance to direct her, and it shows.
The Girlfriend Experience is an extremely minimalistic film. By that I mean there isn’t all that much to it. The shooting locations are rather straightforward – just a bunch of restaurants, penthouse apartments and hotel rooms. The camera is often stagnant. At times it simply sits and observes the conversations between characters, almost similar to a documentary.
The film is also minimalistic in the sense that while there is indeed plot, it doesn’t move very far. The film does offer a rather intriguing look into the life of this escort by touching on the drama she goes through with her accepting boyfriend. The most climatic moments of the film involve their discussions. The story is also told in typical Soderbergh experimental and non-linear form. It might swap from Chelsea’s conversation with a nosy journalist, who is rather symbolic of the viewer’s point of view, as he pushes for the same questions we do, to one of Chelsea’s appointments. It’s nothing confusing, but the film isn’t a straight timeline of events.
What I do love is that Soderbergh never once exploits Grey’s porn star side. The few times Grey is completely naked she is cast in shadows. And for a film that deals with a lot of sex – there isn’t any to be seen here. It might be ironic to think that a porn star playing a call girl doesn’t visibly perform the act of sex once in the film, but I found to be a gentle touch by Soderbergh. He didn’t turn this character study into a vapid, sleaze-filled exploitation film.
The one thing I haven’t touched on so far that everyone is probably wondering about is Grey’s acting abilities. From the standpoint of an open mind, she wasn’t that bad. He character is kind of a dolt to begin with, and Grey at times is very wooden. It’s hard to argue whether that it’s her bad acting, or the result of Chelsea being a very uninteresting character. Even at her most dramatic she is still rather tame. The rest of the cast performs rather authentically in what was a very neo-realistic brought together film. One of the actors, who plays a blogger, was an amateur actor who actually is a blogger in real life. You won’t find a bigger name in the cast than Sasha Grey’s.
The Girlfriend Experience might leave you with a dull taste in your mouth for its low sense of excitement, but I found the film to be intriguing on the basis of experimentation. It isn’t pretentious for a film to be enjoyed on a purely art level so long as one is aware of the thin film around it.
Not Soderbergh’s best work, but it’s still more intriguing and fulfilling than what other filmmakers can put their names to.