Australian politics, society & culture

Amoral Tale

Steven Soderbergh's 'The Girlfriend Experience'

Luke Davies

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In what passes for context-setting in a porn clip I found on the internet as research for this review, an off-screen cameraman asks porn star Sasha Grey to tell a little about herself. “When I’m not fucking,” she smiles, “I like seeing a good movie, or writing, or fooling around with music.” It’s rather long-winded, as porn set-up goes.

In another clip, ‘Sasha Grey Tight Teen Twat’, the actress proves herself to be adept not only at strongly incantatory dialogue – “Yes! Yes! Fuck, yeah!” – but at improvising many syntactical variations on this kind of phrase. In ‘Gagging Sasha Grey, through clenched teeth and in an apparent delirium, she repeats, over and over, “Beat that pussy up! Beat that pussy up!” The phrasing is mysterious, since her colleague at that moment is merely making standard (if frenetic) love to her.

The genesis of Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, in which Grey stars, is not so mysterious. The mainstreaming of a porn zeitgeist in society meant that, inevitably, a porn actress would take centre stage in an art film. Rather, what is mysterious is how a film-maker of Soderbergh’s calibre could drag such an actress across the great divide and then content himself with making her character dramatically invisible, since his area of concern – what to make of this gilded age of trash culture and stripper chic – invites, surely, such fertile possibilities of exploration.

Grey was 18 when she started making porn films, and in some of the aforementioned clips she has a sunny, pale-skinned prettiness about her. She was 20 when she shot The Girlfriend Experience in New York late last year, and already, a certain California porn-baked hardness has begun to set in; one might say she has lovely eyebrows. That it is a dreary and depressing film is not entirely her fault. Rather, the fault lies with Soderbergh and writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, for creating so listless a cultural curio.

 In a long career, Soderbergh has proven himself capable of making good films. He changed the landscape of indie cinema forever with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), showing that very low budget, dialogue-heavy films, if well written and gripping enough, are capable of becoming break-out commercial successes. But Sex, Lies and Videotape was his last ‘art’ film that made any serious money. Instead, he’s made a number of very successful ‘commercial’ films, such as Out of Sight (1998) and the Oscar-winners Erin Brockovich and Traffic (both 2000). The affable energies of Brad Pitt and George Clooney helped his breezy Ocean’s Eleven trilogy (2001, 2004, 2007) take more than $US1 billion worldwide. He’s earned the freedom to go back occasionally and make something that resembles ‘art cinema’, hence The Girlfriend Experience. Unfortunately, The Girlfriend Experience seems both disposable and pretentious; one senses Soderbergh sleepwalked through its making.

The film’s title refers to the shorthand of online erotic classifieds: ‘GFE’ (its original title) signals to a prospective client that a girl will give the full ‘girlfriend experience’: go to a restaurant, hang about and watch DVDs, chitchat, presumably tongue-kiss, and even stay for coffee and toast in the morning. All with the meter running. Grey plays Chelsea, a $2000-an-hour New York callgirl who offers said experience. The film was shot, with mostly non-professional actors and mostly improvised dialogue, in late 2008 as the Wall Street bailout took shape; the bailout is a constant topic of conversation between Chelsea and her clients. The film is thus less about the sex industry or client–worker relationships in that industry than it is about male power and anxiety.

 This could and should be an interesting topic, but The Girlfriend Experience fails to explore it with any vigour. Sex, Lies and Videotape attempted to examine, with some acuity, the morality of lying. The Girlfriend Experience is so much concerned with the world of the commercial transaction that there is a certain what-you-see-is-what-you-get patina to its characters’ interactions; their milieu comes across as a generalised swampland, lacking the vitality of detail.

Chelsea’s boyfriend is Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer. We know that Chris is ‘fine’ with what his girlfriend does; he only loses his cool well into the story, when it appears Chelsea blurs the lines between the personal and the professional. Yet the film reveals nothing of what makes such a relationship tick. Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) was luridly metaphorical, and its portrayal of amorality in the age of late-capitalist despair had a certain acidic dynamism: something fizzed on the tongue, for all the film’s ultimate coldness. Christian Bale was creepily marvellous, and fitted perfectly the definition of a sociopath as someone whose pain is so great, so narcissistically self-absorbing, he is unable to feel for anyone else. In The Girlfriend Experience, it is hard to imagine anyone experiencing anything quite so interesting as pain.

Primarily a potpourri of vignettes from Chelsea’s life, the film follows no real order, though I suspect it wants us to believe it’s following the über-hip order of the time-jumbled narrative. It feels as if it just didn’t work as a linear story; perhaps the decision to mix it up was made in the edit room. Sometimes we are moving forward; at other times we realise we are in the past, but the jumbling feels gratuitous. Few of Chelsea’s clients are intrinsically interesting; nor is the computer diary she keeps, which serves, in a sense, as an excuse for voice-over. Often, her diary is merely composed of lists of which designer labels she bought and when she wore them to meet her clients. Harron, via Bret Easton Ellis, made excoriating black comedy of this brand fetishism, but here Chelsea comes across more as the zombie-child of Paris Hilton. “On October 25,” Chelsea intones in voice-over, “I met with Dennis. We had lunch at Nobu and then went to a hotel room. During lunch he talked about the financial crisis.”

This financial talk – there’s scattered banter about the presidential election, too – would be fine in a tight script, with professional actors. But the improvising is mostly a catastrophe. When they’re not delivering improbable lines – “I haven’t seen you in almost two weeks now” – characters say things like, “We watch the news, we watch this presidential campaigning, it’s stressful to wonder where our country’s going.” In the hands of amateurs, the danger is that subtext becomes signpost.

A lot of this is excruciating. You can see the cogs turning in Grey’s brain as she struggles with her lines. She seems that worst thing an actor can be – humourless. Is there an element of cruelty, a kind of mistreatment, in Soderbergh’s casting of her? I may be wrong, of course: she may, in fact, be a talented actor playing, pitch-perfectly, a $2000-an-hour callgirl who is both unengaged and unengaging. The closest she comes in the film to being upset is when a character who runs a website called Erotic Connoisseur convinces her to sleep with him, presumably so that he can give her a good rating on his site. Eventually, what he writes is: “With her flat affect, lack of culture, and utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest fucking Gump.” The Erotic Connoisseur (Glenn Kenny) is crass and demented, but it may be that he comes closest, as an observer, to nailing the essence of Chelsea.

The internet is awash with chatter that speaks blithely of Grey as being some kind of warrior of empowerment, changing the old trailer-trash, crystal-meth paradigm of women in porn. Yet surely if one, or one’s character, was a paradigm-smashing warrior, we might expect a dollop of joy or exuberance to be in evidence somewhere. The Girlfriend Experience shows a world leached of it. In the US, the legitimisation of porn and stripper cultures has largely come about through the internet. Sixty years ago, the advent of another new technology, television, allowed advertising to exponentially multiply its avenues of saturation. The world changed ‘forever’, then as now. But advertising, too, has only ever really been about polishing turds, and porn is no more about empowerment than advertising is about choice.

The Girlfriend Experience is shot sombrely and austerely, in a style that might be defined as ‘vacuous chic’. That is to say, The Girlfriend Experience is the cinematic equivalent of those hip yet lacklustre Café del Mar CDs of ambient chill, which have been selling like gangbusters these last 15 years. Perhaps dispassion is the film’s mission statement; perhaps, for all that it depicts a world which seems sublimely unimportant, it is in fact a brilliant end-of-empire elegy, a kind of Chelsea-fucked-while-Rome-burned chronicle. It may offer historical curiosity for the specific background it attaches itself to – America’s first black president, twenty-first-century capitalism’s first crisis of self-regard. Nonetheless, as a film in which a porn star’s presence is a fundamental marketing hook, it is masturbation.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed and Totem, the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004.
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Published in The Monthly, September 2009, No. 49