Note: The following review contains references to adult subject matter. For Kenny’s review of “Girlfriend Experience”, click here.
The worst-kept secret at the Sundance Film Festival for days had been the arrival of an advance sneak peek of Steven Soderbergh’s latest exploration of sex, truth and digital video, The Girlfriend Experience. Shot run-and-gun with the RED 4K digital camera on a $1.7 million budget in 21 days with mostly amateur actors, GFE is an exquisitely lensed and intriguingly voyeuristic study of an high-end call girl, her insecure boyfriend and the strangers that float through their lives.
Real-life 20 year-old porn superstar and anal sex enthusiast Sasha Grey stars as Chelsea, a self-styled New York sophisticate who makes a living as a “provider,” a prostitute who uses the internet and review message boards to promote her unique services to upscale clientele. Chelsea’s specialty is providing her tricks with “the girlfriend experience,” an intimate session in which fine wine is consumed, high culture is discussed, delicate affections are shared…all before fucking. As such, the line between business and pleasure can become blurred for both provider and hobbyist, resulting in tensions at home between Chelsea and her live-in personal trainer boyfriend, especially when she expresses interest in one of her new clients.
Structurally, GFE takes Soderbergh back into the dreamy non-linear editorial territory charted by his excellent film The Limey. His latest film is a mostly languid stream of seemingly random encounters and conversations often stitched together by topics, almost documentary-style. Seemingly set during October 2008, many recent and current events are casually discussed, from the presidential bids of Obama and McCain to living under the rubble of the faltering economy. There is no plot, per se, as most scenes are improvised and freeform. But what the film seems to have on its mind is an honest exploration of its characters without much need for a narrative destination. It’s all about getting under the skin of people who spend their time indulging in or exploiting physical pleasure.
Aside from Soderbergh’s always reliable directorial confidence and intellectual curiosity, there will no doubt be two major points of discussion emerging from this film: Sasha Grey and the cinematography. The former point, involving the infamous Miss Grey who has appeared in nearly 150 works of smut during her blisteringly productive 2 year career in pornography, will certainly center on her acting abilities. Perhaps surprisingly, she more than holds her own in the role of Chelsea, even if said role doesn’t require a particularly robust range. Natural and assured, Grey never once confirms that she comes from a genre riddled with some of the worst acting ever committed to film or tape. On the contrary, she’s quite good and might even have a credible future in mainstream cinema. As Soderbergh explained after the screening, he cast Grey because of the natural comfort level she has with the subject matter. She literally is a pro who gets paid to have sex. Those hoping to see Grey nude, spread-eagled or bent-over for even a fraction of the film’s running time are in for a massive disappointment. GFE isn’t particularly interested in nudity or the depiction of sex. In fact, there’s barely any nudity in the film. And what little there is has been tastefully framed and lit with such elegant artistry, that those hoping for a big budget peep show would be better off sampling Grey’s tour-de-force performance in Cum Fart Cocktails 5.
But speaking of the film’s visual character, the cinematography by Soderbergh (presumably again working under his Peter Andrews pseudonym) beautifully blends the cold precision of Solaris, the ethereal grit of Traffic and the saturated colors of his Ocean’s trilogy. There were audible gasps in the Sundance audience when Soderbergh revealed that only two scenes in GFE employed traditional film lighting, opting instead to take advantage of the speed and naturalism of existing ambient and practical lighting. And yet, aside from a series of handheld camcorder vignettes that documents a somewhat unnecessary guys trip to Vegas, it seems that every frame has been meticulously and handsomely designed for light, lens and composition.
Admittedly, the film isn’t perfect and is still a work-in-progress. Some of Soderbergh’s non-linear structuring hasn’t quite found its ideal rhythm or placement yet. And with a less-than-90 minute runtime, GFE seems to abruptly end without an ending, despite an otherwise very amusing final scene. But what was screened before the Sundance audience remains a promising and hypnotic dress rehearsal for what could be one of his best and – for fledgling digital filmmakers – most inspirational indie experiments.