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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Soderbergh’s Wonderful Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh is, quite possibly, the most fascinating filmmaker working today. I’m in awe of his ability to vacillate between projects big and small, studio and indie, straightforward and quirky. The wonderful thing about Soderbergh is that he seems so intent on changing his style with each film, making it so that he is something like an invisible auteur; a man who imprints his films not with a particular style, but with a particular verve and originality. He is a chameleon behind the camera and he seems to revel in challenging the status quo; even his most entertaining and mainstream works (the Ocean’s series) have subversive qualities to them. One could call him an experimental filmmaker, but he doesn’t experiment at the cost of entertainment, making him something like a mainstream Godard.

Soderbergh’s most experimental film, Schizopolis, defies most of the laws of cinema and is akin to Godard’s Week-End but with a blunter sense of humor and a perverse desire to make you laugh, whereas the Godard film exists for the sake of existing and Godard doesn’t really care if you are entertained by it. One could also say that Out of Sight is Soderbergh’sBreathless, but with a hero that is defiantly more heroic and a heroine that is not just a vapid passenger on this journey; but the beats and the rhythms of criminal life as something that the characters perceive as glamorous is definitely reminiscent of the Godard film. To go further with the comparison, it would be easy to try to draw parallels between Contempt and Soderbergh’s own Hollywood exploration Full Frontal, but in all honesty that particular Godard film echoes a bit more in Soderbergh’s newest film The Girlfriend Experience.

The Contempt vibe is not so much in the storyline or the way the film feels, but in the themes that it explores, namely the financial worth of people as compared to their emotional worth. While Soderbergh’s film may seem, based on its subject matter, to be a film with sex on the mind, ‘money’ is really the word everyone seems to be interested in. In his latest film, Soderbergh seems fascinated by the crumbling economy and what it means for everyone, buyers and sellers alike, and how they cope by either spending more, spending less, and how our heroine values experience more than cash. It’s the idea, much like Bardot’s character inContempt, that it’s not about enjoying what you do with money, but that you can enjoy things that others cannot.

Soderbergh opens the film with a “date” that Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is on. This is no ordinary date, of course, as she is a hooker. The shots during the first part of the date are all medium to long shots that conceal faces and much of the action, but we gradually seem to get closer and closer until finally, when they get back to the hotel and kiss, we get a close-up. It starts out being a voyeuristic look into a seemingly normal date, but as we get closer we realize that we have become complicit in a transaction for sex that may look and feel like a real date between two lovers, but is anything but. When Chelsea exits the date in the town car back to her place, we hear all the things she was really thinking about during the date, her voice changing an octave perhaps, letting us know that this was not simply two people engaging in conversation and sex but something that was a conscious transaction of goods. The idea being that, while Chelsea is providing a certain service, she is still a sentient being that is capable of recognizing exactly what is happening while she is performing that service.

As we continue to follow Chelsea, we see that she lives a very comfortable lifestyle with a really beautiful apartment, wine with dinner every night, going to fancy and fashionable restaurants even when she isn’t “working.” But, the odd thing is that throughout the entire film, it doesn’t seem like any of these things mean anything to her, it doesn’t seem like these experiences and this lifestyle makes her content. She is merely twenty years-old and perhaps this a comment on what it means to be a young actress (or actor) who is given everything at such a young age, which eventually makes you numb to the idea of trying a new expensive restaurant or going on a yacht. Eventually, you come to expect these things rather than look forward to them. Or maybe it’s that Chelsea knows how she is able to pay for these things, where that money is coming from, and it cools her happiness.

The mention of the clothes she wears and restaurants she goes to, all in voiceover, delivered in the same matter-of-fact tone as the sex she describes, it all feels very much like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, particularly Glamorama. The constant stream of bold-faced names, fashion labels, trendy eateries, eventually it all kind of stews together into this big steaming pile of expected shrugs. Soderbergh is too much of a humanist to allow Chelsea to become an Ellis-esque vampire, but she certainly shows a lot of the same callousness as some of those characters.

But really, the character that Chelsea reminded me of most was the lead from Agnes Varda’sVagabond. That is, she is a very young woman who thinks she’s smarter than she is, but is really a victim to her own impulses that she doesn’t think through. Chelsea thinks that she has this large master plan about how she is going to expand her business and client-base, but as the rest of the characters speak about the crumbling economy, we can’t help but draw parallels to Chelsea who is trying to expand a business that cannot really be expanded and an economy that similarly didn’t think about the consequences to all that “growth.”

Soderbergh seems fascinated by the idea of acting and every single one of the characters in this film is putting on a performance for the sake of those around them, not just Chelsea. There is the trainer who is trying to act like a friend to his clients, then playing a verbal three-card monty game in trying to sell them more gym hours; there’s the businessman who acts like a big shot for the sake of his new, younger friend; there’s the reporter who tries to get Chelsea to open up, but his acting skills are such that she can see right through him. The list goes on, but the essential point of Soderbergh’s film seems to be that life is a movie and we are all actors and we are all whores, exchanging money for friendships, sex, relationships, etc.

Soderbergh is to be lauded and commended by what he does in this film, but he’s also aided by a terrific and taut script by David Levien and Brian Koppelman. And really, Sasha Grey gives a performance that I was not expecting considering she is a working porn star. It’s really quite a feat what she accomplishes because she seems so real, her dialogue and the way she speaks it seems genuine and there’s never a moment that feels false or forced. She is not playing a hooker with a heart of gold, she’s playing a deeply confused young woman who masks her anxiety with an air of confidence.

So far, The Girlfriend Experience is the best film I’ve seen this year and I found it to be miles beyond what Soderbergh accomplishes in Che. I understand that Che was very ambitious and covers a lot of ground, but I think this new film is equally ambitious in the way that it tries to expose a lot of the muck of everyday life. What The Girlfriend Experienceaccomplishes as a film is no easy task; it tells a story, sure, but it really is just a collection of scenes from which we gather what we need to know about this specific character and some of the people in her orbit. There is no major, dramatic arc to the film, it’s just the story of a how a young woman who seems so confident and cocksure is really in way over her head, just like the young woman in Vagabond. And while Chelsea doesn’t end up dead like the woman in Varda’s film, her soul is definitely hardened.
– Noah Forrest
May 4, 2009

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon