Rumors had been spreading through this year’s Sundance faster than last year’s superflu: Steven Soderbergh would be showing his latest micro-budget indie, The Girlfriend Experience, at a screening marked only ‘Sneak Preview 2′ on schedules. Press office types said that the event was simply a discussion with Soderbergh, and Soderbergh himself was telling people that he didn’t know how the rumor could have gotten started.
It got started because it was true. He brought a work in progress version of the film to a capacity crowd at Park City’s Eccles Theater; since the version of the film I saw tonight was technically unfinished – there’s probably more editing to be done – this review should be read with the caveat that it is not a final statement on the movie, but rather a reflection on what was shown.
Girlfriend Experience is an escort term, signifying not a quick slam bam fuck but a more personal time, with kissing and cuddling and lots of talking. Lots and lots of talking, according to the film. While Soderbergh has cast porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role of Chelsea, a high end escort trying to increase her business and deal with her boyfriend, there’s no sex in the film at all, and only the slightest amount of nudity. Soderbergh and writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien (yes, the Oceans guys) are interested in everything but the sex, and they make the argument that what Chelsea does is really about everything but the sex.
In fact, the film is about selling. Early on we see that the boyfriend, a personal trainer at a gym, is selling himself and his services just as Chelsea does. And just like Chelsea, it isn’t the physical stuff that he’s using to sell more sessions, it’s the personal relationship and connection with the client. The parallel continues when one of the boyfriend’s clients invites him on a weekend trip to Vegas and one of Chelsea’s clients also invites her for an unprecedented weekend away.
But it’s about still more than that. Under all the other layers, The Girlfriend Experience is almost totally about Hollywood. Chelsea’s client base is filled with people in movies and TV, and the guy who wants to bring her away for the weekend and with whom she feels an unusual connection is a screenwriter. Soderbergh even casts Glenn Kenny, film critic, as the Erotic Connoisseur, an internet escort critic (and kudos to Kenny, who plays gross, sleazy and deeply creepy with immaculate perfection). I don’t know that there’s a point for comparison between Chelsea and an indie director (although there’s a lot that I could point out, some of which would be spoilers), but she’s definitely navigating a metaphorical version of Hollywood.
Sasha Grey’s performance is interesting. At one point the Erotic Connoisseur writes a review of her where he talks about her affectless blankness, and that does describe the way Grey plays Chelsea. But then Chelsea is a hugely guarded person, hiding her real self not just when she’s with her clients, but seemingly in all other parts of her life. That mask only slips a few times, and in those short moments of vulnerability Gray is almost sublime. I’m still torn about whether the ‘affectless’ comment was inserted to make an acting problem into a character problem – there are a number of moments of voice over where Gray flubs a line and then just starts it over again, which indicates that it’s this roughness and amateur quality that Soderbergh is seeking – but in those scenes of vulnerability there’s no question that something real is happening on screen.
The rest of the cast is also made up of non-actors (many of them Hollywood suit types, if I’m not mistaken), and Soderbergh says that he cast them to play ersatz versions of themselves and to bring their own personalities to these roles. It works; mixed with the quickie indie aesthetic these utterly unslick performances bring a rough reality to the scenes. When clients talk to Chelsea about their lives and careers you feel like you’re hearing about real lives and careers.
The quickie indie aesthetic doesn’t mean the film is ugly or gritty. Shot on the latest iteration of the Red digital camera, The Girlfriend Experience is often stunningly beautiful. Doubly stunning: in the Q&A afterwards, Soderbergh revealed that only two scenes had been lit, and that everything else was natural lighting. Some scenes are dark, and one scene on a private jet is very blown out, but most of them look so good – especially the many wonderful shots of New York City street scenes – that I would never imagine Soderbergh worked without a lighting crew.
This aspect surely allowed the film to be done with incredible quickness. The Girlfriend Experience is very much of the moment – characters worry about the spiraling economy and talk about the economic bailout, and if it wasn’t for talk about the debates and election, it would be easy to believe that the film is taking place right now. The economic anxiety in the film isn’t just a current events signifier but also an important thread for the characters and the story; the whole film is about anxiety and uncertainty and trying to find a place for tomorrow. Chelsea and her boyfriend are constantly trying to improve their situation, to get to the next level, and the looming abyss of the depression makes all of that more immediate and threatening.
The cut I saw last night could use some trimming, and the relationship between Chelsea and the screenwriter could have been a little more clear (the film was conceived in straightforward realtime and fractured in editing), but The Girlfriend Experience otherwise feels fairly finished. Intimate, intriguing and timely, The Girlfriend Experience is Soderbergh’s indie half and mainstream half coming together; while related to Bubble, it feels much more accessible and complete.