Film Review: The Girlfriend Experience

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PARK CITY -- One of the worst-kept secrets at Sundance was that the festival's poster boy, Steven Soderbergh, would screen his latest film, "The Girlfriend Experience," Tuesday evening at the Eccles Theatre as a "sneak preview." Before a large turnout, Soderbergh declared his film a "work in progress." It did lack end credits, and the director-cinematographer indicated that the images and overall color still might need work.

So consider this a review in progress, a sneak peek at the latest film experiment by one of cinema's more fertile imaginations. Indeed, his films now seem to fall into three categories: Hollywood productions like the "Ocean's" series, audacious stretches in filmmaking and distribution like the underappreciated "Che" and research-and-development projects like "Girlfriend."

This latest film is a follow-up to "Bubble," his $1 million HD movie that made a splash when it went out day-and-date in 2005. According to the director's post-screening Q&A with the audience, he shot "Girlfriend" over 16 days in New York in October at a cost of $1.7 million, using the latest sexy digital camera called the Red camera.

Written by "Ocean's Thirteen" writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien -- according to IMDb -- the 78-minute "Girlfriend" centers on a high-price Manhattan call girl played by porn star Sasha Grey, who is alternately named Chelsea and Christine. All other actors, according to Soderbergh, are nonpros cast for their similarity to the characters.

Thus, journalist Mark Jacobson, who has written exposes of escort services, turns up as a journalist who interviews Chelsea, while Internet blogger/film critic Glenn Kenny is cast as a sleazy online writer who induces Chelsea to have sex with him so he can "review" her services. He gives her a nasty review.

The narrative is presented as a jigsaw puzzle with random scenes appearing out of sequence to force the viewer to put the story together. (Soderbergh said the film resembles his terrific "The Limey" in this regard.) Its heroine is a businesswoman with her clients, an open-minded, live-in boyfriend (Chris Santos) and men she seeks out to help expand her escort business and get investment advice.

This is a business like any other, only one that could destroy anybody who has not developed a tough outer armor. Soderbergh said he cast a porn star precisely because she would deliver an "attitude" about sex-for-hire. What this actress can't deliver, though, is much sense of what's going on inside.

She comes closest in a scene with a new client where she fumes over her bad Internet review. Given the none-to-subtle anti-media tone in "Girlfriend," this might be something her director feels keenly, too, so this scene has more oomph than many of the others.

Since the scenes are improvised by nonprofessional actors, Soderbergh shoots with a loose frame. This does tend to put an audience somewhat at arm's length from the action, which only increases the coolness of the film.

Soderbergh does not invite you to really enter the world of his character but rather to observe a character with a tight rein on her emotions. No one is going to crack this girl's armor. Why she got into the business is vague: She mutters something about wanting her independence from family and men. Well, she sure has got it.

Red washes over many of the interior sequences, especially nightclubs or restaurants. A group of men on a plane to Vegas is deliberately garish in its colors. Still other scenes feel cool, almost neutral in tone. How Soderbergh aims to proceed with the color palette is anybody's guess.

Soderbergh made the film for producers Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's 2929 Prods. and HDNet Films. It will be released this year by Magnolia Pictures, presumably day-and-date again.

Oh, one more thing. As he wrapped up his Q&A, Soderbergh made the audience vow that they were never there. "This never happened," he said. So don't tell anybody you read this.