Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Finally, a Sasha Grey film I can watch
with my pants on

Steven Soderbergh is an interesting director because you never know what he's going to come up with next. A big budget, crowd-pleasing heist film? He did it thrice. A huge, alienating 4 hour biopic about Che Guevara? You bet. A low-budget semi-improvised TV show about Washington lobbyists? Hells yeah. I hear next he's working on an sprawling 5-hour western with a cast made up entirely of talking bananas. It must be true, I read it on Aint it Cool News.

The Girlfriend Experience is one of his low-budget shot-on-digital experimental films. It stars Sasha Grey as Chelsea, a high-class escort who provides the titular "girlfriend experience" meaning that super rich guys hire her so they can whine about their lives. If you're a woman you can get guys to do provide this service for free but if you're a guy I guess you've got to pay. Sasha Grey is, of course, star of such films as Face Invaders 4 and My Daughter's Fucking Blackzilla 9 and the recipient of AVN's 2008 Female Performer of the Year award. She's been in porn parodies like This Ain't Star Trek XXX and Not Bewitched XXX and porn films with delusions of grandeur like Pirates 2: Stagnetti's Revenge, but this is her first real film role. She does a good job (I guess, it's kind of hard to tell with this character) but enthusiasts of her other work might be disappointed. It's set against the backdrop of the Global Financial Crisis and the '08 election so the only thing that gets ass-fucked is the US economy.

What it shares in common with most of Grey's other films is that there isn't much of a plot and it's generally populated by non-actors engaging in unscripted conversations. Camerawork is very static and distant, there's very much a meandering, documentary feel to the whole thing. The movie is basically about artificial relationships. There are IT and publicist guys who are trying to get Grey to expand her business into the "big time" (even though she seems to be doing pretty well for herself already). Her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) is a personal trainer who is trying to make a connection with his clients so he can get a bigger cut of the gym's income. A journalist is trying to pull information out of Grey so he can piece together a juicy story. With all the talk about the GFC there's a sense of uncertainty and desperation to everybody's interactions. Everybody is scared, everybody wants a bigger cut.

Nobody is particularly evil though, and the movie generally tries to avoid judgement against Grey or her clients or paint them as perverts. I think one guy wears a nappy but it isn't dwelled upon or even mentioned by Grey in her narrated diary entries (I would think it would at least rate a mention but I guess that's small potatoes in her profession). The one villainous character in the movie is a fat, sleazy nerd who runs a site called "The Erotic Connoisseur". He summons Grey to meet him in his apartment in the back of his dad's furniture store and basically demands a freebie in exchange for a positive review. He tries to entice her with a first-class trip to Dubai, free cocaine etc. He is a sleazebag of the highest order. When she finally submits to his demand he gives her a terrible, Comic-Book-Guy-esque review that all but concludes with "Worst... Fuck... Ever". What an asshole.

Unlike something such as Grey's Anal Cavity Search 6, this film fails to probe it's characters too deeply, so like many of Soderbergh's films it can seem a little chilly and distant. You never find out too much about Chelsea or why she's chosen her particular profession. Occasionally there is some voice-over narration as Grey writes in her business journal, but her reports are cold and professional, diligently listing her clothing labels like she's Patrick Bateman. A journalist, kind of an audience proxy, tries to explore deeper into her life but fails. The movie seems content to just follow her around, raising some interesting questions about escort etiquette. How do you react when you're having drinks with a client and another client recognises you and comes up to say hello? Or when you see a client out on a date with another escort? These are the kinds of awkward social situations you never saw on Seinfeld, or indeed Grey's own Seinfeld: A XXX Parody.

In typical Soderbergh fashion the timeline is all over the place, but what little story there is revolves around Grey falling for one of her clients, even though she has only met him once. Her boyfriend is angry because she wants to take a weekend trip away with him, which seems like a fairly arbitrary place for him to draw the line. I would have drawn it at penis/vagina contact but I'm old fashioned that way. In the end she goes anyway, essentially dumping her boyfriend, and things basically turn to shit. This is where a bit more character depth would have been nice because sometimes she seems very astute and intelligent, other times frustratingly naive.

Still, it's kind of interesting watching these guys try to fool themselves into thinking they're in a real relationship. It's pretty funny when a guy starts chatting about his day or talking about the importance of communication as they strip off their clothes and get into bed. Mostly they talk about their stresses at work and Grey looks pretty bored during the whole thing, although with her weird sleepy cross-eyes it's kind of hard to tell. The movie ends of kind of a weird note. She visits this fat orthodox Jewish guy who gives a McCain endorsement while they strip down to their underwear and then he just hugs her and starts panting and then the film ends. Would have made an awesome campaign ad.

As beat-off material I'd have to give this film a 2 out of 10 (unless you're a hardcore Marxist and your particular fetish is watching rich guys whine about the GFC) but aside from that I enjoyed it. Even if it doesn't delve deep enough into anything to be more than an interesting curiosity it's still better than a punch in the gut from Rocco Siffredi.

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