Friday, May 22, 2009

Soderbergh’s GFE

Steven Soderbergh is known for making two distinctly different kinds of films: big Hollywood pictures with the word “Ocean’s” in the title, and small digital video independents. Quickly filmed and largely unscripted, The Girlfriend Experience (trailer here), is definitely the latter. Following its recent premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, GFE starts its regular theatrical run this Friday in select cities.

In addition to his improvisational methods, Soderbergh added further wildcards into GFE’s 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. Chelsea has dramatically grown her business by offering her clients more intimate options which simulate an actual relationship, as well as the standard “services.” Of course, you still have to pay to play. While it certainly happens off-screen, there are no sex scenes as such in GFE, as part of a conscious strategy by Soderbergh to distinguish Chelsea from less rarified service providers.

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 his services as a trainer and a 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 backgrounds. 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. Though some scenes ring uncomfortably true, others seem to meander, which is completely understandable given its improvisational nature. Despite the absence of explicit scenes, it remains a voyeuristic film, preoccupied with the material trappings of luxury. While the character development is often compelling, the film ultimately ends on a rather hollow, anti-climatic note.

Granted, GFE can be talky and uneven, but the sharp provocative dramatic situations are never dull to watch. In truth, it has its merits, including a riveting debut performance from Santos. (It even has a cool drum solo.) Soderbergh fans should find it more satisfying than most of his recent indie offerings. As for Grey fans, I won’t speculate. It opens tomorrow (5/22) in New York at the Sunshine and Beekman Theaters.