Saturday, June 20, 2009

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE: MOVIE REVIEW



Cast: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Runtime: 78 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Drama, Experimental

        The title of the film implies what it implies, just as a flight simulator will give you the experience of a flight simulator. When it comes to movies, most guys I know wouldn’t really want to discuss about You’ve got mail with their girlfriends. That they do is a different matter altogether. What they secretly desire is to discuss There Will Be Blood. I hope you realize what I am getting at. They desire to discuss sports, they desire to discuss headlines of newspapers, they desire to discuss political events that are unfolding in here and outside. Her name is Chelsea, who provides for this elitist little service. Often this service doesn’t even include sex at the end of the night. What is rather expected is someone who can indulge in a bit of interesting, intelligent and maybe even an intellectual conversation. Conversation, you see, is a dying art. What is expected is someone who can listen and gradually bring out the real inner self of the client. The client, whose married life probably seems like a compromise. What they call the mid-life crisis. What they need is a pretty woman providing a flattering company.
        Chelsea, who’s played by top flight porn actress Sasha Grey, is probably good at this. The film employs her voiceover at several instances where she describes her interaction with her clientele. I was reminded of that great Mike Figgis film Leaving Las Vegas. Now, one might wonder why Mr. Soderbergh sought someone who’s only 21 and whose filmography (here at IMDb) is self-descriptive of its extreme nature over a more established talent. Say someone with the acting chops of Ms. Elisabeth Shue. That would be because someone like Ms. Shue would come across as too personal. Chelsea, on the other hand, is a professional. She knows that. Her clients know that too. We all, in our various lines of jobs, do realize that at the end of the day it is all business. We share a laugh with our grocery guy, gripe over the abysmal Indian batting display against harmless spin, but at the end of it we got to pay for the shaving cream. Chelsea, through the detached exterior of Ms. Grey, embodies that professionalism.
        That doesn’t cut the complete picture though, and if anything neither is the title complete. There’s another experience, somewhat contrasting, and one that doesn’t come under the scanner of billability. It is provided by Chris (Mr. Santos), but involuntarily. Chris is Chelsea’s boyfriend, and they have been in a committed relationship for the past one and a one-half year. He works at a high-facility gymnasium as a physical trainer catering to the same class of clientele as Chelsea’s. His extremely good rapport with them has given that professional relationship a more personal edge. They’re so smitten by him that all of them are willing to pay for his company to a weekend trip to Las Vegas.
        That is contrasting, because the experiences sought – from Chelsea and from Chris – actually satisfy two of the most personal of all emotional needs. One, that of a girlfriend, within the vicinity of whom a guy can open up into his vulnerable self, which could be also termed the feminine and weaker self. And second, that of a guy, who sparks up a group, where a bunch of guys can sit together and make merry and open into the different aspect of the self, the masculine side that doesn’t really bother much with the vulnerabilities, some of which are even joked about and evaporated. With Chelsea, her clients do not want a hooker. They require a time that is spent alone. With Chris, the bunch of businessmen are probably making merry with their loneliness, throwing it out on the table in between and spreading it around. And that loneliness is the key to both the services. Interesting is the remark the guys make on the plane to Vegas, where they let out their utter contempt for the very idea of a girl being paid to provide company. Their argument – There’s no way the girl would be into me if I have to pay her to be with me. At some level somebody’s paying for Chris’ company too, I guess.
        Now mind you, this line of thought ought not to be considered cynical, and neither is the general tone of The Girlfriend Experience. What we ought to learn in times as these – of joblessness, of pink slips, of recession – is that any such kind of service does come at a premium. This is a professional world, where that popular movie-adage goes – Everything’s business, nothing’s personal. Rather, the tone is practical and maybe even nonchalant, so much so that it could even lead some to interpret it as detached.
        Is it really that, I wonder, for I myself struggled, albeit all too briefly, with the notion that Mr. Soderbergh’s brilliant formalist self took precedence over the explorative one. And I’m not sure, though my views tend towards the negative. Mr. Soderbergh’s film is an exercise in voyeurism (all cinema is) that actually seems to realize the boundaries of what it could possibly unearth from its protagonist. Is Mr. Soderbergh, or the film, or Chelsea absolutely sure that every emotion that is displayed in the presence of her clients is one hundred percent professional? Is there something personal in there too? What if the predator becomes the prey? Chelsea’s job asks of her to be a provider of warmth, a kind of blanket where her client let it all out. What if one of her client’s real self is so interesting Chelsea finds her professional defenses breached, and her real self taking over?
        Mr. Soderbergh, for almost the entirety of the picture, focuses primarily on Chelsea’s face. Her eyes, and her smile, and her reactions. For most of the time we see her in control. But along comes a client whose wit seems to sweep off her feet, and we see her letting out a genuine laugh. What’s happening there? On another occasion, she sees another one of her regular clients with another escort. She is jealous, let there be no doubt. Is it rivalry of a professional kind, or a personal kind? More importantly, in her line of work, can the two be really distinguished? And does the distinguishing really matter? Especially in times as troubled as these, where every which body is taking a financial hit. Even someone who is providing as invaluable and timeless a service as that of a female companion.
        And The Girlfriend Experience, in its capacity, does try its level best to know Chelsea. And while it is at it, it doesn’t really wear any colored glasses, be it pink or grey. Mr. Soderbergh, the liberal filmmaker he is, doesn’t intend to adulterate Chelsea, nor does he want to gawk all over her. And whatever he is trying to do, he can do only so much considering the outsider he is and considering Chelsea’s iron clad exterior.
        There’s a brilliant sequence that displays the success of Mr. Soderbergh’s attempts, which aren’t merely jabs at experimental filmmaking, but efforts to try and juxtapose Chelsea against a tumbling economy. She is sitting in a bar with her boyfriend, after a bad day at the office, letting it all out. Most cameras would have the two in focus, with the people in background out of it. Mr. Soderbergh brilliantly reverses this, informing us that a bad day (one of her clients cited with another escort) isn’t something that is entirely personal but rather a bad day at the office just as we all face once in a while. Her boyfriend leaves to pick up another round of drinks and in a breathtaking display of subtly radical usage of formalism, the camera brings into focus Chelsea, as she mulls over. Over a drink, we speak out over a bad day. But reflect, we do in private.
        He has always been one of our most fascinating filmmaking talents, and his technical choices are often interesting if not always. I still believe his attempt at black and white with The Good German was pretty lame. Look how he chooses the lighting of the rooms. A golden hum spreads over a rather homely setting. The places aren’t expansive, and sterile, like in American Psycho (a jab at the financial state of a much different era). Instead they feel precious. Through them, he wants to convey the desperation of these bad times. And he isn’t being cynical here, and certainly not detached. He is merely being, well, professional.
        Parting thought. Chelsea is often seen wearing sunglasses. Dear reader, Mickey Rourke would always wear sunglasses for he never wanted to risk what his eyes might reveal. Looking at the film there might be a day when Chelsea wouldn’t need to wear those sunglasses no more.

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