“The Girlfriend Experience,” a riveting provocation from Steven Soderbergh, is so organic and of a piece – it contains nothing extraneous, nothing that doesn’t serve its central concern. Take, for example, the voice of a ritzy call girl named Chelsea, played by porn starlet Sasha Grey. Chelsea’s flat-line monotone mirrors the film’s proposition that in the consumer society everything exists on the same plane and can be reduced to a commercial transaction, whether it’s bonds, sportswear, or sex. Or, in the case of Chelsea, a combo of sex plus intimacy for two grand an hour that’s called a “girlfriend experience.” For those who don’t get out much, this rentable relationship is available from a kind of one-stop hooker known as a Girlfriend Escort or GFE.
The chameleonic Soderbergh has long mixed studio entertainments with art house gambits that can range in scope from epic to chamber pieces. Following on the two-parter “Che,” the 77-minute “Girlfriend” — released on video-on-demand three weeks before it’s set to hit theaters this Friday – focusses for six days on Chelsea during the recent presidential campaign, Palin and McCain on the tube and everyone obsessed with the tanking economy. Lusciously lensed on HD, the camera trails Chelsea to swanky downtown haunts where she meets her johns – no graphic sex but lotsa restaurant porn – and the posh apartment she shares with devoted boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer hoping to launch a sports apparel line. We see her on a date with a client discussing “Man on Wire,” while another offers her financial advice and she inquires after his family. In true American go-getter spirit, she spends downtime developing a promotional website and diversifying her assets. At some point in the shuffled time scheme Chelsea falls for a married West Coast screenwriter named David (David Levien, one of the film’s writers) and her desire for a weekend tryst with him becomes a deal-breaker for Chris.
All this is conveyed in a fragmented form reminiscent of the early 60’s Godard of “Vivre Sa Vie.” “Girlfriend” also scrambles time in a manner that sometimes challenges the viewer’s ability to tease out the story. For instance one repeating – and hilarious – scene of hedge-funders on a private jet to Vegas could or could not be the film’s “true” ending. And “Girlfriend” continually doubles on itself to comment on narrative and filmmaking. Throughout, Chelsea is being interviewed for a piece on a call girl in a committed relationship by actual “New York” writer Mark Jacobson. A self-styled Erotic Connoisseur (film critic Glenn Kenny, creepily credible) barters the promise of a rave review on his web site for a free sample of the wares. And the poised, if waxen Chelsea is herself a scribbler, narrating in voiceover which designer duds she wore on each date, what was discussed, and her clients’ niche desires (did I spot a dude in diapers?). One john even suggests she make a movie to build her brand.
IndieWIRE recently met with Steven Soderbergh and discussed his film’s view of late capitalist society, scrambled versus linear time, and the novel just published by his wife Jules Asner.
indieWIRE: I loved this movie.
Steven Soderbergh: Really! I’m surprised.
SS: Well, because it’s very polarizing. I’m surprised when anybody likes it. It’s one of those things people either really like or really just want to get away from.
IW: What’s not to like?
SS: A lot of it’s expectations. What do you want out of a movie to begin with. And then, what do you want the form to take. What kind of performances are you interested in. How do you want the stories to be told. I did an audience test on “Out of Sight.” And some guy in the focus group said, I just want to say I hate stories that are told like this, where they don’t go in a straight line – and that became a lightning rod and turned the thing into a free-for-all.
IW: Speaking of non linear, I have questions about what happened. David, the guy she’s interested in – well, we see the scene of him standing her up towards the middle of the film.
SS: That’s right. And the last scene we see of the two of them together was actually the first time they met, when he goes to her hotel room for the first time..
IW: And that comes after he stands her up. Now why would you do that?
SS: The scene of them meeting for the first time has a different weight if you know he’s going to betray her. It has another layer of poignancy to me because you see her beginning to be engaged by this guy who’s going to, like, emotionally betray her. I just like the idea of that being the last scene [which is the first scene chronologically].
IW: The film continually reflects its own process. Who is Chelsea narrating to in her voice over?
SS: This is something we learned in talking to real escorts. They keep journals about everything. Technical things, so they don’t wear the same clothes. They’re current on whatever issues their clients are interested in. It’s like their homework. All of them told me this is what they do.
IW: Any particular reason you gravitated toward this post-modern self-reflecting structure?
SS: I was trying to just give a sense of what her interior life is like. That her interior life is not linear. The idea of the linear narrative is very much a construct. When you’re walking down the street you’re aware of the fact that you’re walking down the street; you’re thinking about what you did before you left this building; and you’re thinking about going from this building to your apartment. Your mind is moving in these three realms. And depending on what’s going on in front of you, you’re shifting the emphasis of each as you walk along. I”m trying to recreate that sense of how our minds are constantly sifting and filtering our experiences and we’re trying to connect stuff. Because we’re trying to organize this chaos and convince ourselves that there’s some sort of narrative here and we’re not going insane. And film can recreate that sensation almost better than any other art form.
IW: Better than writing.
SS: Yes, because you don’t have to describe things, you can show them. It can be very elegant if you do it well. It also depends on what your goal is with the piece. I’m less interested in the nuts and bolts of the narrative than in you feeling what it’s like to be Chelsea for a week. The impulse of the film was more driven by: what’s it like to be this person for six days? than: I want to tell a story that goes from A to B to C. It’s just an impression of her.
IW: So I’m asking stupid questions.
SS: It sounds cavalier but, because of the goal of the movie, it kind of doesn’t matter if you get all the details. You walk away with the sense of, well, what I know is there’s this girl who does this for a living who has this boyfriend and then meets somebody and it doesn’t work. The movie is about control — the illusion of control. She’s somebody who works in a job where she exerts an incredible amount of control, really. If she’s doing her job right, her clients don’t feel that’s the case. But I know from talking to women who do this that part of the attraction for them is the amount of control they feel. Nothing happens that they don’t bring into being, and they find power in it. It’s interesting to talk to somebody who’s in that world.
IW: How did you come to this topic to start with?
SS: Just by accident. I was with some writers in a bar here in midtown — we were working on something else. And I noticed somebody who stuck out. And my friends said, Oh, she’s a GFE. I didn’t know what that term was. And they described to me this echelon of escorts who get a significant surcharge for the intimacy they provide.
IW: That’s an actual sub-category of call girls?
SS: Yes, absolutely. GFE’s are different than a pure pay-for-sex prostitute. You’re really, like, renting a relationship. You talk to them about everything that’s going on in your world. You can make out with them. I was fascinated by this idea that people will pay extra money for intimacy.
IW: How do men find out about them?
SS: The internet.
IW: The GFE thing strikes me as a pretty cynical operation.
SS: In which direction?
IW: Just what it says about the fact that people have to pay for someone to listen to them.
SS: Aren’t we all doing that? You’re being paid to listen to me.
IW: Not much. But it’s an honor to listen to you, a privilege to listen to you.
SS: At one point Chelsea says, Well, what are you looking for? And the guy says, I’ve been feeling stressed out, maybe I should go see a shrink, but it seems like more fun to see you.
IW: Wouldn’t you expect a “regular” relationship to at least provide an ear?
SS: I don’t have any desire to define what people should be getting out of a relationship. It really just comes down to how far we’re willing to dictate the terms for the way other people live.
iW: I’m not judging it.
SS: I’m not either. Somebody can live a life that I would never live and that I won’t condone. But unless we’re talking about sex with children, it’s really not my place to legislate how people please themselves.
IW: Yet what I took away from the film is that everything’s commodified – sex, companionship, sportswear – it’s all on the same spectrum.
IW: At the two screenings I attended, I laughed a lot, though I was almost the only one.
SS: I think a lot of it’s funny too. Just the way people try and get what they want. Y’know, in real life we repeat ourselves. When you read a transcript of a conversation you’ve had with somebody it’s really alarming. And the film sounds like that to me. Like the breakup scene. Everybody’s been through that scene. They keep circling the same thing over and over. And they think, if I just say it a little different I’m going to get a different response or result. It’s both funny and painful at the same time. He keeps thinking I’m gonna say something that’s going to turn her. And she keeps thinking I’m gonna say something that’s gonna make him go, oh okay. And it doesn’t. It just keeps going.
iW: I saw a moment of emotional truthfulness in that scene, when Chris says you’re out fucking guys all day. Till then he seems content with the arrangment.
SS: When we were setting up that scene that was an example of what can be interesting about this process. Because nothing’s written down. I pull her [Sasha] aside and I say, Whatever you do, do not let him talk you into staying here tonight, you are going on this trip. Separately I pull him aside and say, Whatever you do, do not let her out of this apartment to go on this trip. Then you turn ’em loose. I had a sense, knowing the two of them, that at some point he’s just going to pop. And that eventually he would have to SAY THE THING THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO SAY, THAT’S BEEN THERE ALL ALONG. For me part of the tension was if it takes 12 minutes, I’m going to wait until he pops. And it took about 5
IW: That was another aspect of the movie’s humor, the way these people sounded. Especially the guy with the sportswear store whom Chris visits to launch his line.
SS: Oh yeah, yeah. I loved the way he talked, that guy, he was great! His whole, like, Right now I’m thinking no, but I’m also thinking… Who writes that? It’s so funny, that stuff to me is so interesting to watch. It make you realize how much of a construct most movies are. People have the right word and it kind of happens at the right time. This really was a kind of fictionalized documentary in the sense that I was setting people up in situations and turning them loose and just making sure the camera was in the right place. But I wasn’t controlling them at all. I was purely keying off the situation. And Chris, those were his clothes, he has a clothing line. I told him, bring a box of your stuff, I’m taking you out to this guy and I want you to convince him to put your stuff on the floor. That scene went on for a while, it got funnier [he chuckles] but I had to cut it down.
IW: How do you go back and forth between the “Oceans”-style blockbusters and art films?
SS: They’re not as different as you think. Because it’s still problem solving. They’re both kind of like math problems but you’re dealing with different kinds of numbers and integers, depending on the scale. But you’re still trying to solve a problem. You have something in mind, you have a certain amount of time, a certain amount of money, and and you’re kind of triangulating to see if you can organize the elements to get what you want.
iW: But in a big studio movie you have to please the suits and the audience.
SS: It would help if you please the audience. But you’re still pleasing yourself. I like those kinds of movies. The reason I made the “Ocean”s movies is because I like caper movies. I always have. When somebody sends me something and I read it and I go, Look, I think this is perfectly good but I wouldn’t get in line to see it, I can’t make it. I’d be second guessing. I would be in line to see an “Ocean”s movie. The trick is, now that those are sort of over with, can I find something else that’s pure entertainment like that that I want to do? That I feel like is good for me to do. I haven’t been able to find one yet.
IW: Critics have noted the influence of Godard in “Girlfriend.”
SS: It’s certainly in line with the kinds of films I was watching when I was growing up, like Godard and Fassbinder. It’s like Godard in its reportage aspect. But he has a reputation for being more non linear than he really is. When you go back and watch a lot of his films, as digressive as they usually are, they’re actually usually told in sequence. Resnais was aggressively non linear. And then I was thinking of Fassbinder, because he really liked to use non actors in his films by casting friends of his.
iW: About the sound track. Why that exciting drumming in the third scene?
SS: I shot a bunch of street musicians, including this guy Shakerleg, not knowing what I was going to do with them. The third scene where Chris is jogging – I wanted loud drumming there because to me that’s sort of where the movie really starts. We’ve set up a couple of things, but that’s where the movie announces ‘Okay, here we go.’ Her boyfriend’s out jogging, while she’s waking up in bed with this guy.
IW: You have this ravishing wife. Doesn’t that get in the way of work?
SS: How do you mean?
IW: It’s such an invitation to other aspects of life that don’t take it out of you like filmmaking. I bet you’ve never been asked that before.
SS: Actually, she asked me that … I encouraged her to write because she has a really good story sense and knows exactly how to structure a story. So I was the one who was saying, Why aren’t you writing? She said I’ve tried, it’s really hard. And I found these legal pads behind a shelf somewhere that were filled with page after page of stuff and that’s when I said, you really need to try it.
That’s where both of our heads are, y’know what I mean? At a certain point, as you know, the connection needs to move into some territory that is beyond what somebody looks like. Because there are lots of interesting looking people around and if you’re somebody like me, who’s very work driven, the ability to have conversations about the core of that is crucial.
IW: Have you gotten any negative reactions from women about this film?
SS: Not really, if they don’t like it, they just leave the screening and never call for an interview.
IW: I think you may get some negative reactions.
SS: I’m sure I will. If I didn’t, I’d be doing something wrong.