The Girlfriend Experience
The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh has been doing his patented “one for them, one for me” approach to cinema for a while now, so much so that it seems tiresome to keep bringing that to the forefront. Yes, his new film, The Girlfriend Experience, was shot for very little with an HD camera in the span of 16 days, and even largely improvised. These things are important, and readily apparent, in the film, but what always tends to get short-sided in these discussions, as with Bubble and the unjustly ignored Full Frontal, is that he can bring some startlingly good ideas to these films, albeit in a quick, nearly stream-of-consciousness fashion. Don’t get me wrong, these are experimental films that wear their influences on their sleeves, but gimmick or no gimmick, he’s a man that goes with his instincts at all times. For that, he gets my respect, if not full-fledged admiration at all times. He’s a prankster right up there with the best of them.
That being said, The Girlfriend Experience is Soderbergh’s best film in years. Why? It has many familiar visual themes (for Soderbergh at least; I mean, the man’s stamp is all over this), and even takes a headline grabbing form of improvisation (lucky for him, they happened upon a major economic collapse amidst shooting; lucky, huh), something that rarely works, and is not exactly covered delicately in this film.
It’s Sasha Grey. The gimmick of the film actually turns out to be his craftiest move. I had not heard of Sasha Grey until this film was announced (I’m sorry, my knowledge of porn stars is so 2001), but, upon reading multiple interviews with her, I have become rather fascinated. Here’s some up-and-coming (pun absolutely intended) starlet who just won an award for Best Blow Job or something at the AVNs, and she’s talking about how profound an influences Godard, Malick, and even freaking Teshigahara are! On her own work! Clever niche this one has found, the artsy, even elitist, porn star.
However, she’s also rather tragic. After all, it’s the porn industry. If there was ever a ticking clock to an industry, here’s one. She is now 21, and boy is time just ticking. She speaks of wanting to direct and create more artful porn films, ones that ask for an entire viewing, to really, ya know, soak in the cinematic qualities. Do I believe her? I absolutely want to… Hell, I downright admire the audacity for even suggesting one of them filmmakers that make them “havin’ to read the words on the screen” movies could be an influence on pornographic filmmaking. It’s been done before, just watch Deep Throat. And if there’s ever a time to try again, it would be right here in the heart of postmodernism. Throw a Cries and Whispers reference in there, and watch the feminists recoil, Sasha Grey!
But here’s the catch, and I’m going to read the film this way. Soderbergh knows this, and casts Miss Grey in a role of a high-priced escort. She’s cold, steely, and seemingly emotionless, expect to those buying her services. However, there is a side to this character that, though very savvy, is naïve about her trade. She hopes for an emotional bond that can never really come out of these relationships. She can’t even rationalize one, especially since she’s committed to her long-term boyfriend, but she’s ever hopeful due to a belief in personology as a way to filter through potential clients. She believes in a real connection with each of her clients, precisely because she can afford to. She’s 21, beautiful, in great shape, and with just enough pudge in her cheeks to make her seem appealingly real; and all theirs. However, she’s asking for something that can never be expected out of her industry, not with any sort of regard to competition or growth potential. She’s the bright young thing that will one day be replaced with more bright young things, and the richest of the rich may want a fantasy, but they will no doubt play it out with the new ones.
See, an ambition to go against the grain of an industry is an admirable one. And the escort that wants real human connection is I’m sure more than most even consider giving. And the “real” Sasha Grey is asking for the porn industry to adopt a thoughtful approach to pornography, less about the quick getting-off, and more about mood and atmospheric buildup. That is certainly more than most consider giving. But there is a window for these industries. And these are not patient industries that will allow these experiments to see their gradual unveiling. Banger in the Mouth #24 will probably not be renamed Pousser des Cris. The industry will keep churning out films, awarding Blow Job Awards. And she may be admired for her actions, but like the clients in The Girlfriend Experience, the buyers will go on with their lives, enjoying the quick fix when they need it.
Soderbergh knows this all too well. After no one actually sees this brilliant film, it will be back to Hollywood, to keep that wheel turning. Maybe Sasha Grey will adopt his policy; “one for them, one for me” (Pun absolutely intended).