Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Girlfriend Experience

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience was shot quickly and cheaply in the fall of 2008, as a historic election loomed and the entire economy collapsed. The film, which leaves a bitter aftertaste, is a perfect statement of the Bush era zeitgeist right at the moment it all came undone. References to current events (which already feel a little dated, like yesterday's front page) pop up perpetually throughout the film, but in a way they are unnecessary. Soderbergh captures the time and place just as well through the hideousness of his characters and his setting - New York in the throes of a yuppiedom so impeccable yet inert, it makes one long for the tackiness of the 1980s. No tackiness here - porn star Sacha Grey is cool as an Apple-designed cucumber in her "straight" debut as high-class call girl Chelsea. Just as the title suggests, Chelsea is there to look good on her john's arm, to discuss movies intelligently (or rather, superficially but with a veneer of intelligence), to eat at the finest restaurants and listen to her "dates" whine about how they're only going to make a few million this year. And to sleep with them, of course, but the sex is almost an afterthought, and sometimes - in peeved tones - she complains in her meticulously recorded bookkeeping about the lack of intercourse. She's a pro, then, in every sense of the word, and what she sells is not so much her body as her image. What the men are buying is the faux "experience" of having her as a girlfriend; she's just one more accessory in the age of the iPod.


Soderbergh perfectly conveys this disgusting scenario through his fragmented screenplay and coolly detached but stylish direction. Really, the paid sex is not what's offensive here (that's probably the most honest transaction on display); it's the smug pretense of the whole thing, the effortless glib glide of their existence through chic lofts, trendy restaurants, expensive gyms, corporate jets. It's the staged intimacy of Chelsea's gimmick, as if the distinction between signifier and signified no longer even existed. Thus it's hard to distinguish Chelsea's symbolically cozy but empty relationship with her vapid boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) from her "relationships" with the random men who pay for her company. And it's even harder to distinguish the chic shallowness with which the characters engage their soulless surroundings from the alternately intimate (without feeling) and removed (without perspective) style that Soderbergh brings from the material. In other words, his (presumed) satire is so subtle - in essence, he simply displays this ugly demimonde in its own wretched terms and assumes we'll be repulsed, which we are - that we can't even tell if he's repulsed too.

In short, The Girlfriend Experience is an unpleasant, sneakily acerbic little movie because it so perfectly embodies its very subject. It knows all the right moves, has an eye for the au courant classiness of a locale, and balances its various modes with such superficial "good taste" that you want to throw up. Soderbergh's clever facility and acute nose for visual trends (there's more than a bit of mumblecore in the photography and dialogue here) add up to an end product which is both facile and irreproachable on its own terms - it's glib but in an ahead-of-the-curve way; probably facile tomorrow, but still vaguely impressive today. That mixture of freshness and sterility may very well be the point - but would a better point have been to give us something, anything, to hold onto as spiritual refuge? Any sign that beneath these well-dressed mannequins there was a beating heart? To be fair, Soderbergh attempts to do just that when Chelsea irrationally dumps her lover and attempts to establish a real, passionate romance with a customer. Soderbergh's jumbled narrative is a mixed blessing in this regard; on the one hand, it scatters our attention and thus dilutes whatever residual sympathy we might be able to muster for our protagonist. On the other hand, this approach allows for neat and occasionally effective juxtapositions, such as following Chelsea's crushing realization that she's been stood up with her first, emotionally vulnerable meeting with that same man who'll later break her pint-size heart.

Even so, this climax may be too little, too late, as we're already quite disenchanted with the heroine (whose supposedly redeeming affair is compromised by the banality of her astrological quirks and the smug indifference with which she dumps her suddenly almost sympathetic boyfriend). And how can we accept this intimation of soul in the story when the style still has none to spare? Soderbergh's camera ducks and weaves behind the glitzy decor, hovers around Grey's vaguely pleased visage in the back of a limousine, sets itself up to take in the entirety of the couple's well-groomed apartment, all the while letting us know that it's comfortable in its swanky surroundings even as it leaves just enough distance so that it won't be confused with them (kind of like the witty satirist at the cocktail party who puts everyone down but keeps accepting his much-maligned guests' invitations). At one point a character pops up who could disrupt this very self-pleased aloofness: movie critic and blogger Glenn Kenny plays a sleazy impresario who tries to talk Chelsea into a decadent and quite possibly hazardous orgy in Dubai. The man is so slimy, and Kenny's performance nowhere near as polished as that of the other actors (which is part of the charm), that we breathe a sigh of relief - yet Soderbergh shoots the whole scene from across the room, keeping a distance so great that the grotesque pimp's subversive presence is never allowed to register. It's as if the director's afraid of this kind of primal energy, that it will unsettle his perfectly tasteful mise en scene, and so quickly we retreat to one of those crowded Manhattan bistros, pretending to be coolly disdainful even as we settle in.

Many moons ago, when the cinematic landscape was at once more romantic and more rigorous, Jean-Luc Godard crafted his own prostitute's tale, the sad, serious My Life to Live - his wife Anna Karina playing a hooker whose professionalism masked her pain; at times, she wears her good looks like a mask, while at others she engages in long inquiries with a philosopher and weeps at screenings of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Above all, while Godard is just as concerned as Soderbergh with documenting the economic realities of prostitution, encompassing a critique of capitalist society, and hinting at his heroine's emotions behind an occasional inscrutable exterior, the French director also never silences his own perspective (if any filmmaker was incapable of that, it's Godard). My Life to Live is always bold even as it's alienating, mixing raw documentary with overtly stylized set pieces. The Girlfriend Experience is much harder to read, even if it's less obscure, and it does not seem to have the same stream of barely suppressed emotion shimmering under the surface. Even the titles of the two films offer a marked contrast, with the wounded ferocity of Godard's Life standing tall next to the slinking Soderbergh's muted, snarky Experience. They're different films; fair enough. And both do an excellent job capturing the spirit of a certain time and place. After all, despite my reservations, it's hard to make criticism of Soderbergh's film stick, precisely because its smugness and superficiality so cunningly mirror that of its subject.

Indeed, The Girlfriend Experience is exactly what its epoch deserves - and that may be the saddest statement of them all.

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