A Good Experience: Notes on Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience”

It’s too bad Soderbergh kept his new film so short, just 77 minutes, because the story he’s begun to tell is so remarkably primed for the plumbing. Chelsea, a prostitute played by the real-life porn star Sasha Grey, sells her product to various Wall Street-types–often filmed yucking it up in the cabin of a private jet–while her boyfriend Chris, a trainer, tries to make their relationship work. It all goes swimmingly until Chelsea falls for one of her clients.

But the plot isn’t why it’s so good. What Soderbergh (“Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” “Che,” all “Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen”) has done is create a snapshot of our gilded age–its fragility, uncertainty and systemic collusion. We are all bit players, Soderbergh seems to say, in an economy whose underlying motive isn’t real wealth, but the mere appearance of it. Bankers have deluded themselves into thinking that they can buy “the girlfriend experience,” while the seedy petit bourgeois–escorts, trainers–believe money will set them free.

The strength of Soderbergh’s film is that these comparisons aren’t made explicit, though they eventually become clear, thus saving it from dumbed-down fare. The subtle force behind its power is Soderbergh’s technique. He uses a hand-held digital camera, with even the audio muffled out at times by the background clatter of clinging glassware and scraped plates at New York new wealth’s favorite haunts (Craftsteak, Public). Reality TV only hopes to reach this kind of realism.

The film also gets a boost from the spot-on acting of the mostly non-professional cast. Few of the films main conceits–how insecure the wealthy are about the foundations of their wealth, say, or how supremely rational a prostitute must be to keep sex and love in two separate spheres–come through in the dialogue alone. It’s the actors’ inflection, their way of talking around subjects, the negation of what’s been said by an anxious little laugh, that makes their message clear.

Perhaps Soderbergh was exhausted after making his 4-hour “Che” epic, released earlier this year, but the films only flaw may be its hurried rush. Cut, cut, cut to the next scene–you can almost feel director fidgeting at the editing room desk. In any event, not since Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”–or perhaps ever–has a filmmaker captured the grand delusions of a society drunk on expensive champagne, over-priced to begin with, and air.

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