The Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience was released in theaters and in stores simultaneously, allowing those of us not at Cannes the opportunity to watch this stark, surprisingly relevant drama as soon as release. Soderbergh's genius spawns from his wide-eyed curiosity of the unexplained and the mystified; he is also obsessed with the idea of a herione. His female leads (Julia Roberts as Erin Brokovich, Cate Blanchett in The Good German) are flawed but desirable and mysterious. Soderbergh's choice of porn star Sasha Grey as the lead character, Chelsea, in Girlfriend is bold but not shocking in any way. Who else could play a sexually numb call girl than a sexually numb porn star? (Meg Ryan's stint in the horrid In The Cut does not count.)

However, calling Grey "numb" really isn't fair. Her performance in Girlfriend is well studied and enlightening; she struggles with vocal inflection and her emotions seem fairly shallow, but her timing and body language is spot-on for this kind of film. She stretches across the bed for every man she meets, but she never dehumanizes Chelsea with triteness or overly sexual behavior; this is an accomplishment for any actress playing a call girl, but even more so for a non-actress.

There are really no co-stars, and aside from an annoying side story about a bunch of men on a plane to Vegas, Grey carries the entire film. Shot without any camera effects to increase the "art" factor (a la Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Soderbergh portray's Chelsea's life as one of both grandeur and heartbreak. She meets high-end clients, is invited on trips, and then returns home to her long-term boyfriend at the end of the day. Early in the film, her boyfriend, who works as a personal trainer, declines a client's invitation to Vegas mentioned earlier, only to find out Chelsea is leaving for the weekend with a new client despite her boyfriend's compromise. "It's my fucking life!" she tells him. And really, it is her own fucking life. It's separate, but in love the lines are hard to draw--and even harder to maintain.

Girlfriend is subtle and entertaining, but is clean enough to be a PG documentary. With the exception of the fight scene detailed above, foul language is never used, and the act of sex is not once portrayed. In fact, we see Grey naked only when leaving the bed of her live-in boyfriend (the "real" relationship). This is where the brilliance of this film is apparent. Chelsea is after self-fulfilment and in search of real love. Her clients have sex with her--often mutually enjoyable--and never appear jealous; even her long-term clients understand the business aspect of what she does, and suggest ways for her to wade through the economic crisis without losing clientele. Her actual boyfriend is whiny and attached, ultimately left cold by her line of work.

Is a relationship like Chelsea keeps with her clients just as loving as that with her boyfriend? Both include "the girlfriend experience," (which simply means deep kisses are part of the deal) but which is better for Chelsea? This question has no answer, and that is the point Soderbergh makes with Girlfriend.

Quietly acted, bizarrely sex-free, and gently directed by Soderbergh, The Girlfriend Experience is a never smutty and always smart look at 21st century love and how the game has changed.

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