Sasha Grey is a fascinating character. I say "character" because she has very savvily crafted a damn near impenetrable persona that only she will decide when and how to step away from. She has assumed the role of Most Notorious Porn Star Currently Working, and now she is the star of the new Steven Soderbergh movie. I have seen and read interviews in which she has seemed pleasant, respectful, cold, immensely knowledgeable, and remarkably, indomitably effusive. Her character is one of a cool, steely wall: she is untouchable, and if anyone tries to "touch," she sidesteps like a pro. There are countless current examples of Third-Wave Feminism Run Rampant -- far too many to count here, and the subject is far too complex to discuss in detail in what is supposed to be a movie review -- but Grey is carving out territory all her own...or at least she thinks she is. Listening to her tone of voice, and reading the kinds of things she says, she speaks about liberation and freedom as if she created the terminology.
Grey is an absolutely fascinating subject, if for no other reason than she has assumed the role of a man (thus underlining the Third-Wave Feminism parallel), claims to love participating in some of the most degrading pornographic scenes imaginable (though she still has her own set of boundaries), and seems as if none of it fazes her in the slightest...yet she is so dismissive, so evasive. It seems as if there is something hidden beneath the thick, stubborn surface.
Which brings me to The Girlfriend Experience, which reminds me of its leading actress -- it is undeniably fascinating, distractingly cold, and seems to be hiding a key element that would make it much more believable. The film is one of those small, almost-guerrilla style Soderbergh indies where the director strips everything down to make a sort-of movie that tackles high-concept material with a snarky wink to pop culture. These films are generally interesting failures (Full Frontal, Bubble), and The Girlfriend Experience fits the same mold, right down to its confounding arrogance. Soderbergh seems more interested in the act of making a film -- and the challenge of creating a specific, aloof tone -- than in crafting an enduring work of cinema. The result is certainly a piece of filmed art, but never quite feels like a real movie.
Grey is the central focus of the film as Chelsea, a high-class call girl who offers her clients the full "girlfriend experience" -- her sessions consist not merely of kinky sexual exploits, but lingering evenings of idle conversation and manufactured partnership that often end in...well, you get the idea. Chelsea never seems attached to any one of her clients; in fact, she never seems attached to anything within a specific moment. She unburdens herself in written journals that she speaks as occasional narration, but even her transcribed thoughts are more factual than intimate.
Chelsea mainly associates with wealthy fat cats in the financial business, many of whom care less about nailing a hooker than they do having someone with whom to discuss the financial crisis and how it is making them poor...even as they pay Chelsea a small fortune for one night of company. In her off hours, Chelsea makes a home with her boyfriend (Chris Santos), who himself is struggling to make a place for himself in the fitness world.
The Girlfriend Experience may be the first film to openly take place during the 2008 presidential race, and is easily the first to feature extended discussions of the disastrous state of the U.S. economy. It seems natural for a Soderbergh film to be so savvy and so current, and unfortunately natural for the film to be acutely aware of its intelligence. Soderbergh is truly a genius and an unabashed lover of filmmaking, but one of his eccentricities is falling so in love with the form and style that his ambitions sometimes come across as too cute by half.
The most interesting thing on the screen is Grey, who is the perfect fit for a character like Chelsea -- such a good fit, really, that it would be easy to ponder (as many publicly have) how much acting she had to do for the part. The truth of the matter is that hers is a very intriguing performance filled with subtle nuance -- no overstated emotion, to be sure, but she says a lot without saying anything at all. Too bad Soderbergh is precoccupied with shooting from a distance, so we don't ever truly get an intimate look at her face (or perhaps that was the point), and too bad he strains to draw a parallel between Chelsea's line of work and her boyfriend's. Sorry, working as a put-upon personal trainer and striving to start one's own business is not the same thing as sacrificing one's body and soul every single night, no matter how you slice it. If the filmmakers are trying to claim they are, in essence, one in the same, they are wrong. It doesn't matter what kind of edgy hipster spin Soderbergh, Grey, et al try to put on the cold hard facts...the cold hard facts remain the same.
In the same way, when such a riveting figure as Grey holds the screen, why cut away from her to dapple in unnecessary scenes featuring boringly rowdy men and their flyboy exploits? Watching Soderbergh focus on the boyfriend and his rich pals joking around on a plane to Vegas while they stupidly discuss the merits of Obama vs. McCain all the while knowing the only character of interest is being ignored just so these idiots can joke around solidifies the arrogance with which the filmmaker entered this film: the movie in its current incarnation thinks it's about Chelsea, but is really about how hip and current the content is. The cultural material fits in better when Chelsea is forced to discuss anything and everything with her bloviating clientele, in scenes that feel more natural for what the movie truly wants to be.
But for all its voyeuristic indulgence, for all its attempts at fly-on-the-wall realism, nothing in The Girlfriend Experience seems real, but more like stylistic artifice -- not unlike the persona Grey has carved out for herself. There is such interesting ground to cover with a character like Grey, and with a subject like the business of sex, but it all must be dealt with honestly. I never feel as if Grey is being honest with herself in interviews, and I feel like Soderbergh isn't quite being honest with himself in this film. The Girlfriend Experience, sadly, is just indie-chic posturing.