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Dustin Putman

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The Girlfriend Experience  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Cast: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Timothy Davis, Peter Zizzo, Timothy J. Cox, Jeff Grossman, Ted Jessup.
2009 – 78 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for nudity, sexual content and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 26, 2009.
Now playing in select theaters and on Video On-Demand.

A big deal has been made in the press about the casting in "The Girlfriend Experience," Steven Soderbergh's latest "Full Frontal"/"sex, lies and videotape"-esque dip outside of mainstream moviemaking. In choosing the right actor to play the lead, he went with Sasha Grey, a prolific adult film star looking to go legit. With 160 titles to her credit in only the last three years, Grey has certainly made a name for herself within the porn business. None of her past projects, however, likely revealed what Soderbergh has: that she not only has the looks and charisma to go straight, but also a provocative toughness and inner complexity that makes her so much more than just a hot body. Grey's participation in "The Girlfriend Experience" deserves to be but a footnote in the context of a compact, fascinating, meticulously constructed motion picture with far more to offer than one unfamiliar with Soderbergh might be expecting.

Sasha Grey seamlessly inhabits the part of Chelsea/Christine, a young New York City career woman whose dual names go with the territory of her necessary dual personalities. As a high-end escort, Chelsea/Christine provides for her customers whatever—and whoever—they would like, whilst always making sure that the barrier between her true self and the ones she plays is firmly in place. Her boyfriend, commercial gym employee Chris (Chris Santos), is well aware of her job, and isn't above whoring himself to reach his goal of working independently as a personal trainer. When not going out with a revolving door of men, Chelsea/Christine busies herself trying to build her contacts and raise her professional profile. Hoping to create a brand around herself and her services, she visits a web designer who agrees to help her out, but will have to work on the job privately after-hours or risk termination. She also reluctantly agrees to an all-important review of herself and her sexual know-how, meeting an older man at a ritzy restaurant before—well, it is up to the viewer to decide if she does more than this, and whether the ultimate critique she receives is an honest appraisal.

At 78 minutes, "The Girlfriend Experience" is tight and lean, free of excess. By alternating back and forth in time, the non-chronological storytelling is used as a way to layer the characters and, little by little, reveal truths about them and the lives they are living. The screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman (2004's "Walking Tall") and the editing by Steven Soderbergh are labyrinthine but far from impenetrable, coming into focus the more one learns about the purpose of each scene and how it informs the surrounding others. A second viewing could do nothing but compliment the savviness of the film's structure. Meanwhile, the direction is matter-of-fact bordering on clinical, viewing Chelsea/Christine, as well as Chris, in an unsentimental manner that sees them both for who they are and who they are trying to be. Because both characters are, in many ways, constantly playing a part, it is in the brief moments where they let down their defenses and reveal the authentic people beneath the artifice that are most startling.

Preoccupied by their professions and the threat of an impending recession—the film also works as an unflinching time capsule of October 2008 in the week prior to the Presidential election—Chelsea/Christine and Chris will do whatever is necessary to get ahead and ensure their financial survival. Used to a certain comfortable way of living, the two of them nonetheless have failed to make a home for themselves. Their relationship is cold and/or lifeless when they aren't quietly fighting for authority. A confrontation between them when Chelsea/Christine announces that she is going away for the weekend with a client whom she also may be developing feelings for is captured in unbroken long-shot, better to eavesdrop on a conversation best left private. Is Chelsea/Christine really interested in this other man? Maybe she just wants the added option as she struggles to grab hold of a destiny that leaves her scrutinized on the fringe of society with few chances to express her genuine identity. When their weekend together to the idyllic, autumnal Hudson Valley region ends before it has begun, Chelsea's/Christine's reaction, superimposed with the sound of her vitriolic published review being read, is one of subtle devastation. For all that she has sacrificed, does she have anything to show for it? Meanwhile, Chris has flown to Vegas via private jet with a group of filthy-rich men all too willing to seduce him. Chris has an ulterior motive for going, but will he actually get what he wants?

"The Girlfriend Experience" is a difficult film to emotionally connect with, but one nearly impossible to turn away from. The two lead characters put up fronts for various reasons, whether to protect themselves or to fulfill the roles that others expect them to be. It is all a means to an end, but said ending is neither predetermined nor guaranteed to be happy. Sasha Grey and Chris Santos are both relative newcomers, and handle the requirements of their parts with unforced naturalism. Grey, especially, is stunning as Chelsea/Christine, not so much because the character is a demanding tour de force, but because so much must be conveyed with so few outward responses. Chelsea/Christine keeps who she is close to the vest, yet Grey transforms her into a layered, intelligent woman whose seeming confidence hides a wealth of underlying insecurities. We feel like we understand her from the moment she comes onscreen, growing to care about her even before we properly know the multiple shades of who she is. The final scenes barrel out of control and toward consequences that are bleak, forthright, and inevitable—a comment itself on the times we live in. Chelsea/Christine is powerless to stop it, or so she thinks. By this point she's made her bed (and made her living in bed). Now, for better or for worse, she's going to have to lie in it.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman