The Girlfriend Experience


The Girlfriend Experience

Ever since I heard the lurid details of The Girlfriend Experience, I have been fascinated to see what Steven Soderberg was up to. You see, he made a low budget film about a high budget prostitute staring a real life porn star. And not some surgically mutilated chemically peeled one. Sasha Grey (if that is your real name) looks like a real person.

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Before the first frame goes, my expectations are for a boundary blurring, social mores testing, artsy flick. When I see that lineup coming, I reach straight for the glassware. Soderberg, more than any other filmmaker, has a knack for using budgets to make the right films. They aren’t always superb films, but you rarely feel that a few million more would have made it any better, or that he is flaunting excess in front of you.

Roll Tape. And…. Action!

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Smooth. Shiny. Hair set tightly by a professional. Someone whose familiarity with the craft shows in its practice through gradual numbness to the performance. That’s not High Class, though. High Class is when the effortless whim floats elegantly masquerading as joy, not banality. And when, if ever, it is genuine, it can be very compelling.

After the first collection of scenes, time comes into focus. It is sometime when the economic cracks were showing in the pillars on Wall Street. Right around the time when McCain suspended his campaign to single-handedly fix it. Ahead in the polls at the time, this perceived erratic naiveté, dropped him behind, and he would never recover.

Not knowing then what we know how, it was a time of crossroads. ‘Yes, we can’ was still chanted with the fervency of someone that ‘might not’. And this dialog is everywhere in the film. At points, it gets distracting.

The lo-fi, often hand-held, camera still catches excess. Chelsea (Sasha Grey’s stretch role as a young woman trading in the carnal) specializes in providing a ‘girlfriend experience’ or GFE. It is code in the escort world for a call girl that pretends to enjoy your company, go on dates, talk with you, and admire you… for a hefty fee. Through the voyeur’s lens, we peek at these Don John’s of capitalism, purchasing their own romances. A socio-economic enclave doused in money doesn’t seem shocking today. The fact that they use their wealth to purchase the best trim they can afford, even less so.

That plot can only go so far. But, there is a lot more. A boyfriend, who is a personal trainer. He strokes fat cat egos in creepy parallel to the sex trade. There is arc and fall. Tension and toil. And, it is enough to keep the movie together for its sub 90 minute run time. And, while Ms. Grey’s acting isn’t sending agent’s scurrying to her door, it fits in with the film.

The real gambit of the film is its timing and self conscious focus on the banking crisis. Decades from now people will be watching this movie to get a sense of what the world was like and what people were thinking as the economy unraveled and John McCain and Barack Obama sat in a dead heat. Well short of preachy, this still gets a bit redundant when the ganja has you tuned in already. Even the social commentary about the servant class of prostitutes and personal trainers lacks nuance.

The one element that did work for the high mind was this purple nurple of reality. Knowing that the lead actress is portraying a character with so many similarities to her own life blurs the line. Is it exploitation for Soderberg to pluck her from the San Fernando Valley and use her sordid past to sell a movie? Is it helping or enabling? Is it respectful or degrading? Maybe these are the questions we are supposed to ask when the lights come up.

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Sasha has six more films to be released this year.Her next five films will be adult films. Then she is back in indie films. The credits read ‘mini-mart clerk #2’ (I did not just make that up).

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