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After 20 years of directing Steven Soderbergh can still approach movies with the mentality of an artist, for better and worse.  Though he has helmed major event pictures of varying quality, he still retreats to small scale projects with minimal budgets simply because they intrigue his more anti-populace tendencies.  And though the end result may not work to everyone’s liking, his ambition is still on display and it is usually worth discussing.  This system of production keeps his perspective clear on things, all the while keeping his directorial skills from becoming stagnant.  This is something other directors of long standing and stature should consider from time to time.  “The Girlfriend Experience” is his latest off radar project.  It’s a stab at exploring the sex for money world of high end call girls in his strictly amorous deficient way.

As an examination of the life style of a high priced escort/prostitute and the world in which she inhabits on a day to day basis, “Girlfriend” is an uneven exercise.  Soderbergh may amp up the risk factor by casting real life porn star Sacha Grey to play his lead, but the film doesn’t achieve great drama, only mildly derivative observations.  The subject matter and star may add up to a ploy to deliver a piece of cheap sexploitation, Soderbergh has very little interest in the sleazy side of this life.  Those looking for cheap sex scenes in abundance need not apply.  The crux of the story revolves around call girl Chelsea, her clients and her live in boyfriend who knows and accepts her profession.  These people seem intriguing at first, but over the course of the story they begin to take on a dull and contempt worthy edge.  There are no high dramatics to any particular event and everything is kept on a realistic emotional plain.  This unforced style is useful at making the story believable, but Chelsea, nor her mate, ever become genuinely interesting people.  His story in particular goes nowhere.  They feel like a couple of rich, well groomed, highly styled people trying to work through problems which don’t feel consequential or worthy on lingering observation.  Like Grey’s escort, we never care enough about what’s in front of us to invest any emotion in it.  Grey was given high notices for her performance by many critics but the part doesn’t call on her to do any great dramatic back flips.  Chelsea’s emotions always remain necessarily under wraps, so Grey really only has to achieve a consistent state of low key believability.  Considering the acting chops of the average porn star, maybe high kudos really are in order.  Her character achieves a sense of conflict, but the viewer will have a hard time becoming empathetic with her dilemmas.

Soderbergh’s presentation leaves one in various places over the course of its brief 77 minutes, ranging from engrossed to bored and back again. The film looks romantically shot at all times, never giving away the limited budget used to make it.  It’s one of the most lovingly shot films of the year.  What Grey lacks in depth she makes up for in being a great film subject.  She is a petite beauty whom inspires longing looks on film.  It’s edited in Soderbergh’s favored disjointed, out of order style.  Consisting of little more than series of encounters which have been edited around one another, the style helps the narrative and dramatic meaning of each one feed into the other.  And while all this effort is in service of a very minor story, he still manages to end things in a fascinating place.  As the dramatic side of this isn’t inherently clear I’ll describe it.  The film ends with a scantly clad Grey holding onto a Hasidic Jew diamond dealer wearing his underwear, nothing more passing between them but his emotional need for the embrace startlingly necessary.  It boils the movie down to a place it had not yet been, but needed to get to.  It doesn’t save it, but it makes you reexamine much of what has transpired.

Soderbergh should keep on making small scale movies like this.  The results ultimately vary but I think that with the right material he could one day achieve something great working this way.  He seems more at ease and visually on the ball when there’s less at stake financially.  Coming off the troubling failure of his epic “Che”, a film which felt as if no one was behind the camera, something like “The Girlfriend Experience” shows him and us that he still has a meaningful and talented eye.  As he continues to experiment with small films such as these, we should all be there to see what he’s up to.


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