Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Who's That Girl?

In The Girlfriend Experience, director Steven Soderberg explores the illusion of human connection. The porn star Sasha Grey stars as Christine, a high-priced escort, who is so skilled that she charges $2,000 an hour. Christine treats what she does like a business, staying detached from her clients, obsessing about increasing the SEO of her website, and always looking for ways to expand her livelihood (including seeking the advice of a character named "Sugar," played by an old college chum of mine).

Christine's clients go to her because she'll listen to their problems and won't judge. She's like a therapist, only more fun. Oh, and of course, she's beautiful — in her designer Michael Kors dresses and sunglasses, she looks like a sexier, younger Audrey Hepburn. But for obvious reasons, Christine keeps her clients at a safe emotional distance. They don't know much about her beyond what's on the surface. They don't even know that her real name is Christine — they think it's Chelsea — and that's how she likes it. After all, wouldn't the fact that Christine has a serious boyfriend, for example, spoil some of the mystery? If these clients wanted to know the "real" Christine, they wouldn't be paying her.

Soderbergh's movie takes us in and out of the bedroom, treating us like a fly on the wall so we can just be an observer to it all. There's no actual sex in this film, just a lot of foreplay and some post-coital discussion, but that's alright. What we do get sure is, ahem, titillating. The Girlfriend Experience is a fascinating film, scored minimally but effectively with street musicians, and edited in a non-linear fashion that leaves the audience guessing. While Grey herself isn't really called on to do much heavy lifting here other than looking good, she's certainly effective at portraying a character that is simultaneously engaging and detached. Other characters are played mostly by non-professional actors (for example, the owner of a porn site is played by the film critic Glenn Kenny). These touches help make the shot-on-DV film feel even more natural and real. And because some of the dialogue centers around the 2008 election and the financial bailout, it all feels of-the-moment, if maybe a few months late.

In The Girlfriend Experience, we get to see what happens when Christine falls for the same illusion she's selling, and the cracks in her armor reveal a young, impressionable, and naive girl, who is not the cool, confident woman she appears to be. This is a film where seeing the other side of prostitution isn't seedy or disgusting. It's actually quite attractive, and worth recommending. I'm giving The Girlfriend Experience an A–.

(Oh, and BTW, if you want to see Grey discussing the film during a recent appearance at my alma mater, just click here.)



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