(No longer in theaters)
May 22, 2009
Steven Soderbergh’s failures are in a different class than other American directors’. My guess is that he doesn’t like to know, going into a shoot, what he’s going to come out with, which is one reason he acts as his own cinematographer and often his own camera operator: He wants to participate in the process, to live with his actors in the moment. I imagine him in the editing room, playing with the overall structure, rearranging scenes and roughening the syntax, approaching his raw footage like a Cubist jigsaw puzzle: Let’s try the nose under the mouth, shorten the leg, allow content to dictate form. Yet there’s something oddly inflexible about him. Soderbergh gets a big idea and sticks with it, even when it’s not working. Maybe he doesn’t know it’s not working. More likely, he doesn’t want to know. He’s a paradox: a control freak who overcompensates by being loose—then can’t let anything interfere with that looseness. He’s rigidly freewheeling.
Soderbergh has set himself multiple challenges in The Girlfriend Experience, all of them formidable—if not suicidal. The first is to build a film around a nonactress, the hardcore-porn star Sasha Grey, an almond-eyed beauty with a disarming self-containment. She plays Chelsea, a high-end Manhattan call girl, and Soderbergh intends to scrutinize that protective layer. He engages assorted nonactors and gives them room to come at Sasha from varying angles. A nameless journalist played by New York’s own Mark Jacobson interviews her, and the scene is cut into multiple parts and inserted at key junctures. Jacobson—warm, shaggy, manipulative as hell—asks questions to ease Chelsea into letting down her guard: arduous work for scant returns. The voluble blogger-critic Glenn Kenny plays a blogger-critic—of call girls! In the movie’s most vivid scene, Kenny is degenerate appetite incarnate, negotiating with Chelsea the price of a good review while paving the way for a career as the Sydney Greenstreet of underground cinema. The central, more scripted relationship is between Chelsea and her live-in boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who accepts what she does but is blindsided when a client stirs something deep in her. At least she says it’s deep. We have to take her word for it: As an actress, Grey doesn’t put out. As an actor, Santos seems like a great personal trainer.
The Girlfriend Experience captures a moment in our history: The 2008 election hasn’t happened, but the economy is in a dive, a government bailout is coming, and there’s little in the way of a real president. It’s a desperate limbo—everyone is selling, few are buying. But most of the dialogue is listless, and no matter how much Soderbergh snips and stitches, the movie is a corpse with twitching limbs. It’s rare to watch actors who appear to be improvising (badly) and yet manage so often to step on one another’s lines. The suspense is minuscule: Will Chelsea find love with a client she barely knows or be dashed against the rocks? (Three guesses.) Behind the camera, Soderbergh hyperventilates. In some scenes, the leads in the foreground are blurred while the extras behind them are in focus. It’s as if his unconscious is sending a message.