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The Business of Strangers

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

Specificity is the name of the game in “The Girlfriend Experience,” the second of Steven Soderbergh’s planned slate of six digitally-made day-and-date releases. An arty work of direct cinema about specific people occupying a specific milieu during a specific time, it never pretends it’s anything grander. That frees its maker and his cast of non-professional actors (the lone exception being adult-film star Sasha Grey, who plays the lead) to experiment with style and improvised form.

That the time happens to be October 2008 amid the collapsing U.S. economy, and that the people occupy a high-powered Manhattan world that trades human connection for commerce, lends the story an immediacy that transcends its unconventional façade and gives it the feel of unencumbered truth. The universe of high-priced escort Chelsea (Ms. Grey) – who for a hefty fee provides her clients with a full-fledged “girlfriend experience,” fulfilling their emotional and physical fantasies – is not one most viewers will recognize. Yet the dilemmas she faces, as she hustles to stay at the top of her trade and the conundrum at the core of her profession, closely reflect a particular struggle engulfing contemporary America with the evaporation of what A. O. Scott in his review deemed “the last gilded age.”

Using the RED camera that let him so lushly recreate the world of Che Guevara on a minimal budget, Mr. Soderbergh presents a comparably glimmering vision of high-end New York City. It comes complete with close-ups of rain falling in Central Park at daybreak, carefully observed views of shiny, slick storefronts and intimate, lamp-lit restaurants and hotel rooms. He fractures chronology, interspersing conversations and moments from a major dramatic turning point throughout the production, lending the film a distancing effect that suitably reflects the temperament of its protagonist, who hides herself beneath an upscale, money-obsessed shell.

Ms. Grey – in her first mainstream role – is well cast, capturing Chelsea with an appropriate mechanical blankness that slowly, subtly gives way to something more deeply felt and humane. She and Chris Santos, who plays her boyfriend, create a convincing rapport out of dually challenging circumstances, having to improvise their way through the unusual specter of an escort with a committed, accepting significant other. The crumbling of their misguided relationship, the final breakup of which Mr. Soderbergh captures with a gradual inward camera push, in many ways reflects the final collapse of the larger naïve belief that prosperous economic times could continue in perpetuity, despite the turmoil of bad credit and faulty markets. So “The Girlfriend Experience,” despite its relentless focus and wealth of concise, specific detail, still functions as a sharp, poignant allegory, the story of a young woman and a society at large challenged and consumed by their financial lust.


Opens on May 22 in the United States and on Dec. 4 in Britain.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Mary Ann Bernard; music by Ross Godfrey; art director, Carlos Moore; produced by Gregory Jacobs; released by Magnolia Pictures (United States) and Revolver Entertainment (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 16 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Sasha Grey (Chelsea/Christine), Chris Santos (Chris), Philip Eytan (Philip), Glenn Kenny (Erotic Connoisseur), Timothy Davis (Tim), David Levien (David) and Mark Jacobson (Interviewer).


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