Monday, October 12, 2009

Movie Review: The Girlfriend Experience

Many of you out there will not care for The Girlfriend Experience. For many of you, it will be slow, uneventful, and meaningless. Plus it stars no one you've ever heard of, was directed on a teeny-tiny budget, and is about a subject matter well covered in cinematic history. Yet, for me, its subtle insights and hyper realism just hit home so perfectly that I can't help but call it one of the most surprisingly good films I've seen all year. Not one of the best films, but one of the most outright surprising. Anyway, enough introduction, here's the review:

DVD Discovery
You, Me and Ashley Dupré
The Girlfriend Experience moves beyond simulation

The layers-upon-layers-upon-layers that comprise director Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience result in one massive meta-mindfreak. How else to explain the sensation of seeing a real-life adult film star (Sasha Grey), who looks eerily like Eliot Spitzer’s paid lover (Ashley Dupré), discussing the 2008 presidential election and impending economic recession with men paying her for sexual services in what is a fictional investigation of the male/female power dynamic set at the intersection of intercourse and capitalism? If it were any longer than 78 minutes, heads would explode.

The timing and composition of the low-budget indie suggests that writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman seemingly created Chelsea (Grey) from the actual profile of Dupré. Chelsea is a high-end escort paid to not only provide sexual gratification but also real, legitimate companionship. Oh, and she has a serious boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), who knows exactly what she does for a living. Perhaps he is less fazed with the nature of his gal’s career path because he is a personal trainer and thus has already accepted the commoditization of the human body.

The conflict in the film, if there is any, develops from the desire of both Chris and Chelsea to expand their customer bases. For Chris, this only results in defeat; for Chelsea, it results in an impetuous decision to betray her relationship for the potential of a new one with a client. That said, to boil things down to events is to diminish what The Girlfriend Experience does the best: it subtly fictionalizes reality, blending the two to mind-blowing effect.

With terse, telling glances and punctuated pauses that cannot be coached, Grey’s performance is easily the year’s best for a female so far. Although she will be denied an Oscar nomination due to her extensive body of work in the porn industry, Grey deconstructs the “hooker with a heart of gold” without ever lowering herself or the film into obvious melodrama. Soderbergh never smothers his actress with fetishized camera work or exploitative staging, allowing her to seem fully realized and sympathetic without appearing desperate.

Without getting into a discussion of third-wave feminism and the potential of empowerment in sex work, the film challenges audiences with its nonchalant attitude. Clear, bright lines are drawn that circle the economics of sex, and things only become contrived when it is Chelsea who betrays her relationship. Had Levien and Koppelman chosen to make Chris the amorous Benedict Arnold, it would have been slightly more unique and immensely more complex. It should also be noted that although Soderbergh aimed for a “day in the life” feel, the visuals don’t suffer. Shot on a microbudget, the film is surprisingly pretty and never stifling.

The Girlfriend Experience isn’t for everyone and isn’t about everyone; it’s a complex investigation into a small subculture with metaphorical implications beyond that community. Watching the film is like watching airport security rifle through a suitcase stuffed with naughty unmentionables; you feel awkward and sort of pervy for staring…but there ain’t no way you’re turning your head.

Grade – B+

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