Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is a high-priced $2,000-an-hour call girl in Manhattan, offering a 'girlfriend experience': she'll dress with the client in mind, go to dinner and a movie, listen attentively to talk about work and finances, and she'll provide sex. It's October, 2008: a presidential election nears and the economy is in free fall. She has a boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), who's a personal trainer. We are shown five non-consecutive days in Chelsea's life. She's working on her Web page, talking to image consultants, and being interviewed by a reporter. She asks clients when their birthdays are and uses that for an astrological prediction. She's drawn to a new client, a writer from L.A. Should she break her rules for him? What if it risks her relationship with Chris? Should she invest in gold? Written by
Sometimes clients think they want the real you, but at the end of the day, they say they don't. They want what... they want what you want to be. They want you to be something else. They don't want you to be yourself.
Suppose I'm that rare client that really wants to...
If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn't be paying you.
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After the end credits, there's a brief scene of Chelsea washing a client's hair as he sits in a bathtub and talks about John McCain. See more »
Although his aesthetic isn't quite as detached or suffused in jagged poetry, I wonder if Steven Soderbergh may have been, if subconsciously, channeling Jean-Luc Godard with his latest film The Girlfriend Experience, specifically a film like Godard's My Life to Live. There Godard dealt with a woman who has little money and so becomes a prostitute, seen in chapter segments and with a style that had a basis in a script but also in documentary intuition- meaning the actors could do what they wanted, even if the director had to stay true to some kind of form. With The Girlfriend Experience we get Soderbergh again working in his "minor" work form, under the radar of the box-office (Oceans') and controversy (Che). He casts a young porn actress (Sasha Grey) and non-professionals (the actor playing Chris, the personal trainer and boyfriend of Grey's character, is an actual personal trainer), and the film's non-scripted-but-scripted style, and editing taking cues from the Nouvelle Vague, is at the least never less than interesting.
If the film doesn't tell a story exactly, which will surely frustrate some but not be a surprise to anyone who saw Schizopolis or Full Frontal (for better and worse), it does convey time and place very well, of a city where the upper class on edge from horrid economy and we're told of the "companionship" of the call girl played by Grey like in journal entries or sound bytes. If there is any structure it's loosely based around a man sort of interviewing Grey at a restaurant, her demeanor calm but elusive, politely answering some questions and edging around others, and the action and dramatic tone wavers so much from documentary and fiction that it's impossible to separate it. But it's not really naturalism either, though it could be considered that. This is in another way why it's akin to a Godard film: it's highly stylized, maybe so much so that its intention is precisely to provoke in its choices in a distanced frame or a device obscuring faces or even faces out of focus in the foreground as they speak with the background at a bar in focus.
The Girlfriend Experience is also a surprising, if not show-stopping or breakthrough, showcase for Sasha Grey, who has a kind of dirty beauty which she can hide away with her natural sophistication. Though it's not part of the story, there was something that Soderbergh saw in Grey from her porn film experience (it's a similar thing as say casting a professor in Umberto D: he's not playing one, but you can sense the life experience on the face and in the body expressions, the spirit), and its hard to look away from her. Nor even for her personal trainer boyfriend. At worst, it's got some acting that is sub-par, like a rehearsal for a scene that still needs work before being shot but is filmed as a final workshop. But at best we see this torn and bewildering couple who are close but have that block of her "job" sleeping with other men- and the character's proclivity to look for a birthday as a sign of a connection- as something captivating. Even the city, as filmed by Soderbergh as a place with looming buildings and street musicians surrounding the well-to-do, is a character to speak of.
But, as with Soderbergh's other "experiments", saying it's not for everyone is an understatement to end all others. It's so polarizing you can feel the icicles forming from the breath in the theater. Maybe it was wise on his part to make this available on-demand from IFC, as it is an absolutely wonderful thing to experience as a rental though not really a "full-price" affair as it turned out to be at the Clearview Chelsea in Manhattan. Some will flat out hate its consistent choice in camera-work or its strong performances, while others may like it immensely for its sense of truth and human nature. For me, it's provocative just enough to do for 78 minutes starring a woman who is given an opportunity to do something not sans clothes and legs raised. She takes a hold and makes it interesting on a level I didn't expect: the subdued. If Bresson were alive he might find a use for her.
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