Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tribeca ’09: The Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh is a good interview subject, so it makes perfect sense his latest film was selected for a Tribeca Talks screening and panel discussion. As it happens, some of his comments did lead to a greater appreciation of The Girlfriend Experience (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, ahead of its May 22nd theatrical opening.

Soderbergh is known for making two distinctly different kinds of films: big Hollywood pictures with the word “Ocean’s” in the title, and small, largely unscripted digital video independents. GFE is the latter. In addition to facilitating improvisation, Soderbergh added further wildcards into the mix by casting a number of actors in their first mainstream roles, including adult film star Sasha Grey, as Chelsea, a high-class Manhattan escort. In addition to standard “services,” Chelsea also offers her clients more intimate options which replicate the interaction of an actual relationship. Of course, you still have to pay to play.

Surprisingly, Chelsea has legitimate girlfriend experience herself. In fact, she is in a relatively committed relationship with Chris, a personal trainer well-aware of her line of work. Chris is a relentless self-improver, the kind of guy who probably has a drawer full of self-help tapes. He definitely has a Willie Loman streak, constantly selling himself and his line of sports wear to prospective clients, competing health clubs, and sporting good stores. It would be an oversimplification to suggest he sells himself as much as Chelsea, but there is no question she makes sales, whereas he does not.

As Chris, neophyte actor and real-life trainer Chris Santos makes an impressive debut. It is a brave performance, exposing the insecurities and frustrations of a character that audiences will assume to be autobiographical, given the similarities of their background. Grey by contrast, plays a character who by necessity maintains a nearly impassable emotional barrier between herself and the rest of the world. Her Chelsea is essentially a blank slate on which Chris and her clients project their desires.

GFE is a flawed but interesting film. Soderbergh and cinematographer Peter Andrews’s High Def give the film a rich, sophisticated look, but aside from Santos’s performance, it is a rather cold-blooded, passionless affair. While some scenes ring uncomfortably true, others seem to meander, which is completely understandable given its improvisational nature. Despite the absence of sex scenes, it remains a voyeuristic film, preoccupied with the material trappings of luxury, ultimately undercut by a rather abrupt ending. Though post-screening Soderbergh made a convincing case for it in terms of character development, it still remains a somewhat anti-climatic conclusion.

Soderbergh explained he avoided traditional sex scenes in GFE to emphasize the ways in which Chelsea’s career is altogether separate and apart from her less rarified competitors, and he certainly succeeds in that respect. While talky and uneven, at least GFE’s provocative dramatic situations are never dull to watch (and it even has a cool drum solo). It screens again at Tribeca on May 2nd.