The Girlfriend Experience (2009) covers several days in the life of a high-end escort in Manhattan. Media coverage surrounding this independent effort from director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) highlighted his choice of adult film star, Sasha Grey, to portray the main character, Chelsea. I had never heard of the aspiring actress (she’s done over 100 “movies” to date) before the film’s publicity efforts, but a quick Google search returned probably more info and pictures than most straight laced folks would desire. Those familiar with Sasha’s oeuvre hoping to get artsy-fartsy Hollywood porn will be sadly disappointed, as there is barely any nudity and no explicit sex on display.
What makes Chelsea’s services unique is that for $2000 per hour she provides what is alluded to in the title, time with a significant other. She gets wined and dined, for the most part, by high earning businessmen while making conversation about their daily concerns (even remembering to ask how their kids are by name) with several of the engagements not even culminating in sex. A lot of the dialog she is obligated to participate in is not particularly interesting (dry financial banter and anxiety about the impending 2008 presidential election), and I found it initially surprising that many of her clients were not looking for an outlet for repressed emotional expression but rather just someone to share their interests even if in the context of an artificial fantasy. Beyond this basic setup, there is the complication of her real life boyfriend Chris and business arrangements with developing her website and generating publicity for her offerings.
Though the preview hints at a much more traditionally cohesive plot, the first few minutes will erase any confusion that this is typical Hollywood fare. Honestly I did not find the characters or the overall story elements engaging enough to fully support the film but was drawn to the execution of the loosely structured narrative. The details of Chelsea’s life come in and out of focus echoed by the not-so-subtle shooting style where many times there is uncertainty as to whether you are supposed to concentrate on any particular part of the screen or just let your eyes gravitate where they will. The openness of the story structure is compounded by the use of non-linear editing allowing for the inevitable realization that scenes are being presented out of chronological order.
At times Soderbergh is a little too “artsy clever” for his own good with the unfettered narrative and visual manipulations (many scenes sport unique artistic choices that can be disconcerting if fixated on too heavily) taking undue prominence in the viewing experience. If unable to drift along with the detached atmosphere of the film, you may quickly lose interest in the plot or wonder if there even is one. Beneficially the runtime is a brief 77 minutes so for those that find Chelsea’s tale and its unconventional telling to their liking, it will not overstay its welcome. To everyone else, you have been warned as there is little driving force or tension at play in this storytelling, and the finale is as placid as the opening scene. This is definitely a movie to take in for avant-garde aesthetics in the scene-to-scene vignettes rather than any concrete plot developments (though they do exist if you look hard enough).
Magnolia delivers The Girlfriend Experience to Blu-ray with a distinctive 1080p presentation that begs whether there is anything wrong (or, for some viewers, right) with the VC-1 encoded transfer. It is difficult to decouple Soderbergh’s visual intent from the open ended narrative with shots where you wonder if the design originated just to be playful with un-naturalistic shooting choices or the cameraman/director of photography really did not understand how to use the HD cameras employed.
Hand held shots abound with noted shakiness, the center of focus moves almost arbitrarily across the visual field (sometimes with nothing being in focus) and the abnormal tweaking of contrast and hues (alternating between over and under saturation) can be distracting. While the washed out blacks, heavy noise, blown out lighting and obscured detail bugged me a bit, I can only assume this is the high-def experience that Soderbergh desired (and is much less painful than the horrid use of color in Ocean’s Thirteen) plus there are shots thrown in that have great fine object detail and realistic effects. I cannot fault the transfer on a technical level, so if there is any untoward digital manipulation, it is lost in the artistic visuals.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix (48Khz/24 bit) is the sole audio choice. Less schizophrenic than the visuals, the lossless soundtrack gives each narrative space a distinct atmosphere. The flick is heavy on dialog and Chelsea’s monologues which are grounded in the center and sometimes given little support from other channels. Then the soundstage will open up such as in a restaurant or in traffic with the rears providing nice ambiance. Random musical inclusions also offer variety and a chance for the rears and sub to come into play. This is definitely not a mind-blowing mix but serves Soderbergh’s stylistic endeavor well. Optional subtitles are given in English (SDH) and Spanish.
Commentary – Steven Soderbergh and Sasha Grey provide a very forthcoming track with the director known for his engaging commentaries and this being no exception. Very little screen specific references are delivered with much talk about filming challenges and how they constructed the unique feel of the film including ample use of improvisation. Steven even plies Sasha for details about her life as a porn star and how making a “real” movie differs from her normal work.
Alternate Unrated Cut – Included is an alternate cut of the movie that only differs in runtime from the theatrical release by mere seconds. There is no hype about an “unrated” version on the front cover or main menu and only a listing under special features even brings it to your attention. I honestly could not figure out what the differences were and had to resort to an online search. Others more astute than me note that there are a few changes in dialog and a slightly extended scene that do little to alter the overall experience. So basically I am not sure why these changes needed to be incorporated into a separate version of the movie that is buried in the supplements rather than making it the main feature.
HDNet: A Look at The Girlfriend Experience (4:37, HD) – This is a fairly conventional promo piece that has a few interesting moments about how Sasha got involved in the movie. The commentary does a much better job of providing related info.
The Girlfriend Experience delivers a voyeuristic take on Chelsea’s unique escort endeavors with a visually indecisive feel that melds with the lead’s diary like monologue. Definitely not a film for everyone as those expecting a traditional narrative and or visuals may be put off and any anticipating high class porn will be left empty handed (pun intended). This flick fits well into Soderbergh’s practice of alternating crowd pleasing fare (the Ocean’s trilogy) with off beat experiments (Full Frontal, Bubble) and while not a total success works effectively enough to garner a recommendation for the cinematically curious.
Magnolia offers up a Blu-ray that I earnestly believe supports the director’s intentions how ever confounding they may come off. The high-def presentation does not suffer any obvious deficits with a/v that plays right along with the untraditional story structure. The extras are skimpy though I do not know how much background I really desire beyond the commendable commentary. Definitely worth a rental for those intrigued by the concept.
– Robert Searle
Shop for The Girlfriend Experience on Blu-ray at Amazon.com.