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Chelsea Girl Gone Wild: A Review Of ‘The Girlfriend Experience’

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Steven Soderbergh‘s The Girlfriend Experience comes off the heels of his grand two-part opus Che, which was released on video on demand and in theaters simultaneously last January. Soderbergh is using the same distribution method for Girlfriend and, at this point in his career, he seems to have carved out a winning formula for himself.

He’ll direct a big Hollywood contraption such as one of the Ocean movies, followed by a more personal or “artistic” project that he had in the pipeline. It’s a formula with which he’s managed to be astoundingly productive in the last few years. It’s also kept him agile and light on his feet as a filmmaker.

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Soderbergh’s ease with his craft shows through in The Girlfriend Experience and it’s probably the reason that it comes off much better than it deserves to. The “barely there” plot involves a high class call girl named Chelsea (real-life porn star Sasha Grey) who simulates, as the title overtly suggests, the experience of being in a relationship, sex and all.

Throughout the film, we follow her around as she visits her well-to-do clients and we see her business in action. Soderbergh underlines the dull awkwardness of these encounters by focusing on their conversations and transactions.

In one scene, Chelsea is baffled after an unceremonious farewell from one of her regulars. “He didn’t even get up to hug me,” she complains. Chelsea’s boyfriend Chris (played by Chris Santos) is a personal trainer who works in a trendy, corporate gym.

The juxtaposition between the scenes where she exchanges money for sex and he exchanges money for hands-on training is funny because it’s so obvious. The movie was filmed over the course of 16 days in October 2008 and Soderbergh uses the backdrop of the presidential election and the economic meltdown to add an ironic element to the character’s motivations. You get the sense that you’re witnessing the last days of guiltless spending.

So how does porn star Sasha Grey fare as the lead character? She doesn’t really deliver acting-wise, but she does have a natural, unforced presence and radiates a potent sexual energy. It’s a little besides the point, though, because The Girlfriend Experience is more like a playground in which Soderbergh can show us his bravado use of techniques such as non-linear editing and jump cutting.

But it’s a playground that grows tiresome by the finale. Oh, wait…what finale? Soderbergh merely jump cuts right to the credits during yet another of Chelsea’s long, sex-less call girl appointments. In a way, it’s fitting. Soderbergh’s basically telling you that the ending doesn’t matter. And you know what? The entire film doesn’t matter either.

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