THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, with Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Mark Jacobson and Glenn Kenny. A Mongrel Media release. 77 minutes. Opens Friday (June 26.) For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNNN
Steven Soderbergh has always been an experimental filmmaker. This is the guy who followed his artful debut, sex, lies, and videotape, with a black-and-white fiction about the adventures of Franz Kafka. In black-and-white.[rssbreak]
For two decades, he's shifted back and forth from idiosyncratic puzzle movies like The Underneath, The Limey and Full Frontal to mainstream studio pictures like Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's trilogy. Out Of Sight and Traffic bridged the gaps gracefully; Solaris and Che, not so much.
The Girlfriend Experience fits squarely in the "experimental" category, both because it's another venture into the fragmented and cerebral (you have to pay attention to enjoy it) and because Soderbergh's choice of leading lady puts it firmly outside the mainstream.
For the record, the decision to cast adult-film star Sasha Grey as a Manhattan escort in The Girlfriend Experience does not exactly break new ground. David Cronenberg gave Marilyn Chambers the lead in Rabid over three decades ago. Chambers was even pretty good.
And Grey is just fine. Apart from one clumsy line reading in a voice-over, she's entirely convincing as a young woman who makes her living by renting herself out to men.
Grey's character, Chelsea, specializes in "the girlfriend experience," offering intimacy and intellectual engagement as well as sex. She'll meet her clients for dinner and a movie, go for a drink afterward, spend the night and even stay for breakfast; the exchange of cash is handled almost offhandedly, a small speed bump in the course of events. And then she goes back to her sleek, stylish apartment, where she lives with her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer at a crossroads in his own career.
Brian Koppelman and David Levien's cool, considered script uses Chelsea and Chris's situation - which Soderbergh plays out in parallel, chronologically scrambled threads - to explore the various ways people package and sell themselves.
The more time we spend with Chelsea and Chris, who's found himself mulling the offer of a weekend trip to Vegas from one of his male clients, the more we become aware of how much compromise and self-deception is required just to get them out of bed in the morning. Whichever bed that happens to be.