not quite so Micro-Review;
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE: 10/10
I don’t think we’re on RedTube anymore.
The Girlfriend Experience is a deep film about shallow people. A layered film about hollow pursuits. There are hollow films out their trying to convince us that they are anything but, that their characters really are all things to all people, and their lives and dreams matter. People reflect this behavior in real life, believing themselves to be of the greatest consequence to the earth. This is mirrored in Twitter posts and Facebook updates, further emboldening their undeserved, unfounded sense of importance and accomplishment.
Soderbergh does what can be amounted to pop cultural suicide by suggesting through quiet whispers and sparse cinematography that none of these people really matter, that most people really don’t matter. We are not as challenging or resilient as we think. We don’t walk through life with purpose or intent beyond the pursuit of physical release and material stimulation. That no matter how good we think we are at whatever it is we are doing, we are being judged and we hold those judgments against ourselves, convinced that only other voices are being heard and understood. We exist to be the underdogs because then we don’t have to work harder on breaking through. We don’t challenge ourselves. We don’t love or hate each other… we only love or hate how we feel around each other.
The Girlfriend Experience zeroes in on that very real, very human dynamic in an honest, cut-through-the-bullshit fashion that will no doubt alienate the core fanbase of star Sasha Grey who haven’t really seen her naked…. Just with her clothes off. Some have critiqued her performance (either adult or otherwise) as being wooden, even disingenuous, and this film indeed confronts that query, while at the same time suggesting that whores may lie, but so do we, and perhaps we’re every bit the masturbation box as those we condemn.
Taking place in NYC beneath the shadow of the 2008 presidential election and a crumbling economy, we follow Chelsea (Grey) through several encounters with clients who want the “girlfriend experience”, not just sex, but an attentive ear, a warm smile, just some reassurance. Chelsea delivers in that regard, but it obvious that while she harbors no contempt for these individuals, she also feels little in the way of affection. We feel the same. These aren’t bad people, nor are they particularly good, they’re lonely or bored and have cash to burn and no one willing to listen for free… may as well get some with the therapy.
On the other side of the coin we have Chelsea’s “boyfriend”; a physical trainer with lofty goals of entrepreneurship, who is also hiding who he is just the same as Chelsea during her “office hours”. He doesn’t care about people’s health, or making them feel better… it’s all just money. And that’s the heart of the films cold heart; it’s all just fucking money. They are ciphers for other people’s hopes and dreams and complaints and grievances… without them, they are just crude sketches aching to be filled in. Not bad. Not good. Just there. If they were unattractive people they would crossover into being utterly hopeless.
Though the characters of Soderbergh’s film appear bereft of meaning and personality, the film itself is actually richer because of that. It doesn’t pretend that the protagonist has a heart of gold, nor does it suggest she is a gold digging shrieker, nor does it even consider her being a steely eyed realist. She’s simply someone who doesn’t really know what she is. She is certainly attractive… sexually appealing on a textural level, and has tried to convince herself that she’s only doing this to secure a financial future for herself. But when her ability to be a fuck towel is called into question by a smug critic via a scathing on-line writeup, suggesting that without her alluring beauty she wouldn’t be worth the price or the lay (“the nadir of passion” she is called, a quote from Jamie Gillis RIP), she is almost visibly wounded by the remarks, indicating that maybe this is the only thing she’s ever thought herself to have been good at, and now with even something that rudimentary in question, her future may not be so secure. And the sit-down with Chris that kick-starts the third act resonates like a punch in the stomach. Easily the most honest cinematic representation of a fight between boyfriends and girlfriends I’ve seen in a film in a long time. From there the film is at its strongest. at times reminiscent of a less hysteria-driven version of Asia Argento’s Scarlet Diva.
The hatred this film has inspired is undeserved, but also understood. So many film viewers today go into certain film with pre-conceived notions of what the film is going to be, and when it turns out to be something other than that, when they are proven wrong, they get aggravated and take out their vitriol on the film. Rather than accepting it or judging it on its own terms or the standards of films comparable to its nature, they instead lash out at it for not living up to expectations it never meant to illicit. People went into The Girlfriend Experience, looking at the blown up visage of Sasha Grey with her lips parted, and thought to themselves “oh boy sexy fun time”. But when instead of getting a torrid display of spreading holes and guttural moans they get a minimal, thoughtful meditation on lack of identity and financial stranglehold, they freak, more so than usual… given that the air and blood in their brain is more than likely flowing through their genitals, so their sense of reason and humility is even more muted and their outrage greater, because they have been robbed of a cheap thrill. They won’t admit this however, lest they look like libidinously frustrated perverts, so instead they heap buckets of venom on the film for “pretending to be more than it is” when it actually is exactly what it set out to be… you just wanted it to be less than it is. It could’ve easily been a lurid, ridiculous, almost parodic take on kinky sex… it could’ve been a hateful stalker/slasher misogynist thriller… it could’ve been “woe-is-me” Oscar bait. It is none of these things. Is it a middle finger? Perhaps… but all great art forms have that divisive streak in them.
No matter how you look at it, the Girlfriend Experience succeeds as so few films do. Though it has no action or grand melodrama, it remains a near fruitless task on the part of the viewer to be idle for its duration. It’s up to you whether or not you care about what’s happening or the parties involved… Soderbergh has given us that freedom, and for that I am grateful. The Girlfriend Experience is an unpatrozing, quietly challenging piece of cinema in a landscape where even the most “indie-minded” auters are catering to the lowest common intellectual/emotional denominator, relying solely on the "indie" tag to give their films depth... and so many people fall for it. Well here is something that actually is saying something, and few are willing to listen. THAT is what independent cinema is supposed to be about... not merely a rehearsal for the big leagues as most self-proclaimed independent films wind up becoming.
This ain’t Donnie Darko or Me and You and Everyone We Know or the fucking Boondock Saints. This ain’t fucking “indie”. It’s independent. deal with it or go jerk off.