The System rewards Steven Soderbergh and he pays his Faustian debt with haughty judgments. Soderbergh’s new film The Girlfriend Experience is the most unironic celebration of materialist privilege since Woody Allen’s Reagan-era heralds Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters. Already proclaimed, even in the alternative media, The Girlfriend Experience paints a gaudy face on the whoredom to which every powerful person in New York, it sometimes seems, has consented. Narcissistic media can’t even resist its fun-house mirror reflection. Problem is: The Girlfriend Experience really isn’t fun (or funny, as Manhattan and Hannah occasionally were).
High-priced call girl Chelsea (Sasha Grey) promises customers on-the-meter intimacy of the film’s title. Chelsea’s name is an alias, which intentionally evokes the big-money, gallery-choked section of Manhattan. Her “committed” relationship with possibly gay physical trainer Chris (Chris Santos) illustrates the chasm between money and love. (This conveniently coincided with early news of the economic recession during the film’s production.) For a semi-documentary approach, like his similarly morose Bubble, Soderbergh cast porn performer Grey (she doesn’t earn the tag “actress”) plus other non-thespians (including writer Mark Jacobson, who’s shown interviewing Chelsea) as if realistically catching contemporary professional types in this moment of moral and financial reckoning. It’s a millennial dirge for people who don’t know the spiritual/materialist crisis Godard predicted in Nouvelle Vague.
Thankfully, a film version of Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue, about a globetrotting American girl who opposes the hypocrisy of the British class system, also opens this week. Its buoyancy exposes Soderbergh’s scornful, puritanical pretenses: Proto-feminist winner of the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, Larita (Jessica Biel) affects people differently than Chelsea. Chatty Larita has exotic energy. “She looks like money!” the Brits gasp. Biel’s warmth and sexy Yankee strut naturally challenge Old European aristocracy whereas Chelsea/Grey’s impassivity dulls Soderbergh’s already-false critique.
Scrutinizing fast-lane Wall Streeters rather than Grey’s porn industry is a dodge. The A-list restaurants and shops on view resemble the glitzy, high-roller luxe of Soderbergh’s star-packed Ocean’s Eleven franchise, yet this star-deprived indie scolds what Soderbergh celebrates with his elite friends. Girlfriend replays Oceans emphasizing its Hollywood-sleaze essence. It dissolves the distance between the studios and their banks into Chelsea and Chris angling for bigger scores, richer customers—while deceiving each other. Without sustainable skills or definite aspirations, they’re not just money-hungry, they’re money-frantic. Soderbergh may secretly despise the industry’s venality but only half admits it. It turns him on.
In Easy Virtue, director Stephan Elliott challenges the status quo in a more complex way. He depicts the aristocratic Whittaker family’s decline after the Great War when Larita’s sudden marriage into the clan disrupts their staunchness. Larita embodies the post-war, 1920s flapper spirit of renewal—riding a motorcycle through their foxhunt and bringing new literature (Lawrence, Proust and Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned) into the manse. Elliott, who made Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the brilliant meta-operetta Welcome to Woop-Woop, tends toward camp, yet respects Coward’s light sentiment (and pays homage to Ealing Studios’ genteel tradition). Larita reveals her straightforward need for love—her double-layered “easy virtue”—derives from tragic experience. (Chelsea has no background; she’s another conveniently unrooted indie heroine.) Larita’s confession gives the comedy depth; not madcap, she’s direct and sincere. This role measures Biel’s charm against her skill—a modern manifestation of Eleanor Parker’s emotional amplitude.
Elliott surrounds Biel’s slightly anachronistic qualities with odd jazz-era arrangements of “Car Wash” and “Sex Bomb” as if remaking Moulin Rouge. But that error (the film’s only fault) isn’t as disastrous as high-art posturing. Soderbergh’s “genius” conceits (digital burn-out, unfocused close-ups) never work—except for the smart-about-movies crowd that applauds his self-aware, anti-pleasure aesthetic. Instead of credibly dramatizing today’s Eliot Spitzer ethos, Soderbergh’s plot is fragmented then grudgingly resolved. Such art-perversity doesn’t mean Soderbergh is not a hack; operating as his own (improved) cinematographer, he imitates Godard’s 1990s silhouettes and high-relief sound mixes. This chic design is like a magazine layout, not a movie. Lacking Godard’s spiritual yearning and emotion-filled tone makes Soderbergh an art-hack.
Godard frequently used “prostitution” to reveal society’s dehumanization (and his own erotic, capitalist ambivalence—A Married Woman, My Life to Live, 2 or 3 Things). Soderbergh belittles dim-bulbs Chelsea and Chris by casting hooker-performers who show no inner life. Their big breakup pits bad-acting against non-acting—unlike John Cameron Mitchell’s underrated Shortbus, where compassion matched its sexual boldness. Soderbergh’s recession porn confuses drama and documentary without achieving the penetration of art nor the inquiry of journalism. What’s left is acrimony for people who dine at Zeitzeff, Balthazar and Craftsteak like he does.
Turns out Soderbergh is more like Woody Allen than we knew. He even savages the critics who have sucked up to him: Chelsea abhors a john who runs Soderbergh’s semi-doc conceit offers this slander as probable truth. He misuses cinema-verité for sniping. Only those who have personally encountered Glenn Kenny can say whether he deserves being preserved in an oafish, Shrek-like performance. There’s no indication that Ms. Grey or Glenn Kenny understand they’ve been horribly used. Shame, Mr. Soderbergh.
The Girlfriend Experience
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Runtime: 78 min.
Directed by Stephan Elliott
Runtime: 93 min.
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