Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, The Girlfriend Experience, opens in theaters starting May 22. But, it’s currently available on most cable systems, on-demand. That’s how I saw the film on Saturday, after missing it at Sundance and Tribeca. It’s a pretty great film to catch in your living room, with its intimate and static structure.
The Girlfriend Experience is Soderbergh’s best film in years, and maybe his best since his Oscar-winning job on Traffic (yup, I said it). The thing about Soderbergh’s career is that much has been made about the “one for them, one for me” work ethic. He makes an Oceans film, and then makes something like Che. The problem is, in my opinion, the ones “for me” have all been disappointments after The Limey. His last feature with HDNet, 2005’s Bubble, was an experiment in tedium. Full Frontal, his 2002 kinda-sequel to Sex, Lies, and Videotape, suffered the same problems. In the meantime, he floundered with studio product like the ill-advised remake of Solaris and the WWII homage The Good German. Ocean’s 11 was a lot of fun, but the next two installments in that trilogy were a total waste of top-tier talent.
This is all a roundabout and not-so-polite way of saying that Soderbergh might be back, if The Girlfriend Experience is any indication. A succinct and smart portrayal of a high-end escort in modern day Manhattan, the film is a nuanced look at the power of money and the body. Adult film star Sasha Grey plays Chelsea, an escort with steady work in a struggling economy. The film, shot in October 2008, utilizes the timely economic crisis as a setting for the ways sex and money suffer during a recession. Chelsea has a supportive boyfriend in Chris, a personal trainer who uses his body for cash, in his own way.
Chelsea tries her best not to let emotion get in the way of work, but this is increasingly difficult in a time of heated competition and dwindling cash flow. The use of the economic crisis is, at times in the film, on the verge of overkill. However, Soderbergh’s thoughtful and nonlinear use of editing keeps the viewer engaged in how the characters’ motivations are unexpected and sometimes disturbing. Almost everything in the film is found on the fly: most of the music, most of the lighting, most of the dialogue.
Soderbergh tells this story through editing and cinematography, which is why it doesn’t feel negatively impacted by the home VOD experience. Shot on the HD RED camera, the film looks sharp but jarring. The story is concise but fluid, with plenty to contemplate. Watching it at home, you feel like Chelsea is sitting in your living room, and all the problems of her domestic life are tangible. It’s a great film, and a great experience.