Steven Soderbergh has never been afraid to show a bit of diversity with his filmmaking. He can go from such mainstream, high-profile fare as Out of Sight and the Ocean's series, and then take a step back into the land of the small, intimate and independent with the likes of Che, Bubble, and Solaris. His latest, The Girlfriend Experience, is another case of the latter, a film that continues to show that Soderbergh can almost masterfully go from being one type of filmmaker to another without a hitch. It's just a shame, then, that it lacks the enjoyability and intellectual stimulation that we have come to expect from Soderbergh, whatever mode he is in.
The Girlfriend Experience stars adult film star sensation, Sasha Grey, as high-class escort, Chelsea, who thinks she has her life balanced. But it soon becomes very clear that leading the kind of professional life she does is going to intimately affect everything she does, including having a bearing on her non-work related relationships and how other people see her.
The Girlfriend Experience is undoubtedly a creatively complex film, one that strides along at entirely its own pace, never stopping for trite, needless sentimentality. This is evident right across Soderbergh's body of directorial work, even in the star-studded Ocean's series. But while that may make an interesting film on a technical level, one to be admired because of its almost vehement determination not to be anything resembling run-of-the-mill fare, in terms of enjoyment it is sorely lacking.
The structure of the film feels fractured and broken, jumping about from place to place, day to day, time to time, never really giving the audience much clues beyond its main character saying things like, "I had dinner with him last night.." amongst the almost endless everyday conversations which make up the majority of the film. Clearly the latter isn't the doing of Soderbergh himself (at least not directly), as he holds a directing but not a writing credit on the film. But it is nonetheless he who has chosen to structure the film in such a frustratingly all-over-the-place-way, alienating the viewer to the point of not even being to empathize with its main character in pretty much any way.
Luckily, the strikingly good performance from Sasha Grey, who here makes the jump from the world of pornography to feature films. She's not exactly Meryl Streep quite yet, but her restrained performance is something to be impressed by. This is a generic character moulded to be complicated by writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and Grey handles it just about right. A couple of scenes particular come to mind – one of which is when she is stood up after agreeing to spend the weekend with a new client, the other is when she and her boyfriend are having a spat – really shows off the fact that Grey has the ability to do well as a mainstream, feature film actress.
One of the most worthwhile aspects of The Girlfriend Experience is how it explores the idea of voyeurism. And not in a leering, sexual sense – in fact, there's little-to-no titillation to be found here, out with a few brief glimpses of Grey naked and scantily clad as she goes to and from bed, which is never treated in a sexual way as such. But rather in that we get to look through a sort of peep-hole at the intimate life of another person, one that we may see crossing the busy streets of New York and would normally be none the wiser as what their story might be and if it's interesting or not. Even if the way it is technically portrayed on-screen is intriguing, I honestly don't think Chelsea's story warrants an entire movie, even if it only lasts surprisingly short 78 minutes.
There's a certain distance and coldness to The Girlfriend Experience, one that doesn't allow the viewer to invest themselves, emotionally or otherwise, in the story or the life and hardships of this high-class escort girl. It constantly feels like we are being kept roped off from what is actually happening, only allowed to peer over the edge as opposed to being able to fully dive in. Grey's genuine, believable performance, as well as Soderbergh's eye for what makes an interesting camera angle, keep the film watchable, but nonetheless it's far from enjoyable.