Tuesday, May 1, 2012
The Girlfriend Experience (2009) A Film by Steven Soderbergh
Grey plays Chelsea, a high-priced call girl in NYC whose vocation echoes one line Grey uttered in said Rolling Stone article: "I am determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone's fantasies." The mantra sounds all-inclusive, and it is; Chelsea not only sleeps with the men who hire her, but she also engages them in conversation, shares romantic dinners with them, sits down for aimless relaxation time, and listens intently to countless inconsequential personal issues. She provides them "the girlfriend experience," and like a real girlfriend, sometimes she doesn't even sleep with them. Essentially, these men are putting a massive price tag on human companionship, an opportunity that ought to be staring them right in the face for free on a daily basis. The premise alone reveals the degree to which Americans have commodified anything and everything, constantly searching for new ways to spend money on items, attitudes, and ways of life that should otherwise be priceless.
Where Soderbergh's film gets tricky, however, is in its refusal to simplistically frame this contemporary ethos as strictly dehumanizing and demoralizing. No, the primary intent of The Girlfriend Experience - and of Soderbergh's sneaky, probing, sometimes meandering camera - is to unearth the value and meaning still erected in this consumer-saturated landscape. Early in the film, Chelsea's gym-assistant boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) is tossing medicine balls back and forth to a customer looking to improve his physique. Their workout is exclusively designed for personal gain, yet the conversation that follows is casual and mutually curious, leading to an offer for Chris to go to Vegas on an undefined business trip. In another scene at the gym, Chris is trying to talk another male customer into buying a more expensive, comprehensive plan at the gym on the grounds that he believes they have a good working relationship and he'd like to keep it going. The assumption here is that the two men cannot go on being friends if commerce does not enter the equation, yet one can sense the desire on both sides to continue the relationship regardless. Despite the fundamentally business-oriented nature of the discussions between these men, there is a sense of ease and comfort in the dialogue that is entirely missing from the scenes that take place later between Chris and Chelsea in their own apartment.
Soderbergh again acts as his own Director of Photography in the film, and he sticks mostly to crisply framed shots of hygienic Manhattan high-rises and restaurants, emphasizing vertical lines and seeking angles where the architecture causes a separation between individuals in the frame. Fragmented in asynchronous chunks of long, largely static takes broken up by impressionistic shots of blurry city-scapes peered from a car window, the film is one of Soderbergh's most free-form and exploratory, its cold, angular perspectives hinting at a machine-like observer behind the camera but never fully extinguishing the sense of the director's presence, searching hesitantly for instances that make each shot worth the wait. And perhaps unsurprisingly, this has the effect of assigning a democracy across the film's images, a notion of visual equality that renders it acceptable to only briefly mention Grey's appearance in a work that is ostensibly all about her. The Girlfriend Experience, by embodying this mechanical object and still seeking the human within, continues this implicit battle with capitalism. Human interaction has been standardized, compartmentalized, and monetized, but not necessarily defeated, and it is in this that Soderbergh locates the flicker of warmth that justifies his film.