Monday, December 14, 2009

of...The Girlfriend Experience

Soderbergh is a southerner and like a southerner he can make his points with a simple easy charm. And the point he makes about how the actualization of Reaganomics has eroded our souls is strong, but subtly stated. Reagan always believed wealth would "trickle down" and _The Girlfriend Experience_ presents with an ambitious young couple that have placed themselves right under the leaky tap of the wealth accumulators. Chris is a personal trainer and Chelsea/Christine is an high-priced escort. Free from the whims and tangents that plagued the "Me" generation they move through their lives in an organized fashion, unfettered by any apparent deeper concerns. But as this movie so clearly shows, deeper concerns are a luxury of the past, in order to catch every drop trickling down one has to hustle, hustle, hustle.

In order to perfectly elucidate this point, Soderbergh has life and art intersect by casting in the juicy role of Chelsea a porn star for the late capitalist world, Ms. Sasha Grey. Sasha Grey is distant and wooden in all her scenes and at first I thought this movie would be unbearable. But as I was agonizing over her "lack of performance" I realized that the reason why she seemed lifeless and boring is that someone who is performing her job, high-class prostitution, would be fairly lifeless. Just as an aside, the way Grey comes across in _Girlfriend_ reminded me of how Madonna would come across in interviews back in the eighties, cold, almost robotic. Chelsea's mode of being is a perfect adaptation for this world. However, and this is where Soderbergh's soft, southern drawl comes in, her life comes across as banal. Critics complained about her terrible performance, but I found her right on the money.

The gold standard of films about prostitution is typically considered to be _Klute_. In that film, Jane Fonda gave a rich, dramatic performance as Bree Daniels, a woman who became involved in prostitution because she got lost and had to overcome her pain. Bree Daniels was part of a sleazier section of a counter-culture that was part of the sexual revolution. In the era of _Klute_, when the crazy upstart values of the 60's were just making their way into the middle-class world, the smart yet troubled Bree could find ways to combine introspection and a career in prostitution. Well, the sexual revolution is over and Chelsea can dabble in the same realm as Bree Daniels but with a new level of self-respect and status. There is no smack in the veins or smacks on the face in Chelsea's world, because she serves a generation of men raised on porn stars, an escort is something different for them than the prior generation of Johns. Additionally, while Bree's world was about survival and unresolved issues, Chelsea's is about making money. Thus, she has no time for the tears and self-destructive behavior or anything else that stands in the way of her busy day. Besides, why should she feel anything but satisfied? She has achieved that which everyone in this wealth-oriented world strives. And her boyfriend Chris has no reservations and judgments either, as her job helps provide for their lifestyle. The side that Bree had to choose is no longer there, in today's world the line between prostitution and respectability is largely erased.
To me Soderbergh's choice of Ms. Grey mirrors his choice of Andie MacDowell in _Sex, Lies and Videotape_. Ms. MacDowell has had some nice movies, but never replicated her performance in that film. When I worked on a movie about three years ago and spent a fair amount of time with Andie MacDowell and found out why. There were so many ways in which she reminded me of the character, Ann Bishop Millaney, that she played. Soderbergh, in casting someone who's personality and experiences already mirror the part she plays, has again found the Cinderella who fits directly into the glass slipper of this part. Thus the "truth" of life as a Wall Street Escort that some brilliant young actress could try to master and then like Jane Fonda, do a brilliant interpretation of, Sasha Grey does not have to do the work of interpreting, she knows this truth.
The movie, shot on video, focuses on the daily routines of the main characters. Chris joining nerdy guys from Wall Street taking a private jet to Vegas (which when Chris questions his client about paying for it in a wrecked economy, the client explains the trip is "necessary") and talking about a 70% service economy, the New York life of squeaky-clean streets, upscale shops, nice restaurants, gyms, and the boring conversations of people who have become so obsessed with consumption (and so fearful of losing their ability to continue it) that they know of nothing else.
Eventually, though _The Girlfriend Experience_ that Chelsea provides and the reality of intimacy in her life get confused in her heart. And how she responds to that conflict reflects shows so poignantly what we have lost in the loss of the middle-class, for success is hustling for Haute Bourgoisie Manhattan life because in a "70 % service economy" there isn't really much else to seek. (For some that are looking for a comparison point for what it meant to be rich in NYC a few decades ago should watch Whit Stillman's _Metropolitan_- A wealthy but much more innocent world.) For the critics who did not see "the ending" in this movie, just please watch it again.

1 comment:

  1. Grey's performance also brought to mind those of Bressons films. The stiff wooden non-quality of their "acting", more like a recitation of lines really stripping the scene to become whatever the viewer chooses to take out of it..its liberating, really.