The Girlfriend Experience
Release Date: May 22 (limited)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: David Levien, Brian Koppelman
Cinematographer: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Peter Zizzo
Studio/Run Time: Magnolia Pictures, 77 mins.
In The Girlfriend Experience, Sasha Grey plays a high-priced escort whose relationship with her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) is on the rocks. She’s contacted by a client that, due to reasons both good and bad, she thinks may be the one she'd like to spend her life with. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is growing colder and their conversations becoming less worthwhile. He, alternately, is feeling stuck in life and envious of the rich clients he works with as a personal trainer. The film follows their last days together, in a meditation on love, sex and most of all, money.
Director Steven Soderbergh fortunately lucked out on his subject by filming during the breakdown of America’s economy. It’s a film created by and for its time and captures not just the disappointment of its protagonists, but also of an entire nation. Given the thematic context, it’s particularly apt and infuses The Girlfriend Experience with vitality and a certain level of urgency, both criticizing and commenting on the last few years of economic waste and the current era of desperation and disillusionment. This may ultimately make the film less timeless, but for now, it’s perhaps the strongest part of movie.
The relationship at the center of The Girlfriend Experience is a little less interesting than what lies at its periphery. Chelsea and Chris aren’t a general case; they’re a specific relationship with its own particular quirks, which makes the film a bit less universal than it appears at first glance. In a way this is its strength, but Grey in particular isn’t quite able to pull off her part, so the couple’s motivations and feelings are always vague. Soderbergh isn’t trying to make things easier for people, and the elliptical non-linear storytelling makes that clear from the start, but this passive approach to the relationship seems at odds with how deeply integrated the film’s themes are.
Soderbergh successfully nails his targets and it’s a strong and often beautiful indictment of America’s commoditization of feelings. While The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t do nearly as well in developing deep characters or much of a story, that’s not really what it’s trying to do. It’s not an easy film or particularly arresting in anything other than its sexuality and shock casting. What it is, though, is a defiantly independent work that deftly addresses the darker elements of the nation and humanity without quite giving up hope.