Have You Seen… The Girlfriend Experience (2009)?

Welcome to ‘Have You Seen….’ a regular column exploring an interesting film that is worthy of greater attention – for good or for ill. The focus is on the underseen, the undersung or the underrated – or just those films you just need to write about. The focus is analysis more than evaluation so, expect spoilers!

On the surface, The Girlfriend Experience feels like an odd career digression for Steven Soderbergh. This is a filmmaker who began his career with an acclaimed indie darling – Sex, Lies and Videotape – before going on to win best director at the Oscars for Traffic, a victory over Ridley Scott (Gladiator), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) and… Stephen Soderbergh, for Erin Brockovich. During his varied career he has had smash hits like Contagion (a film that has grown hugely in popularity, for obvious reasons) and Magic Mike, enduringly popular films like the steamy thriller Out of Sight, and of course his biggest commercial success (and a huge critical success) Oceans 11 (a remake of a Rat Pack starring vehicle that became a phenomenon). Alongside this you have other notable remakes, an early career remake of 40s Noir Criss Cross, The Underneath, and a divisive remake of Tarkovsky’s classic science fiction film (though, by his own claim, a re-adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel) Solaris.

Soderbergh is a renowned filmmaker with a noticeable, yet varied, style – and one that has publicly retired from filmmaking a few times. He is also heavily involved in film preservation, notably being one of the reasons why Charles Burnett’s masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, was released in 2007, the 1978 film having previously only existed on worn 16mm prints (with the unlicensed soundtrack finally paid for, alongside wider preservation work, partly financed by a generous donation from Soderbergh). So how does a filmmaker like this end up making a 77 minute film starring an adult film star (Sasha Grey) about the sex industry, and beyond, during the early 21st Century financial crisis?

When you think about it though, The Girlfriend Experience really is the most Soderbergh movie ever made. He has always been eclectic, two relatively commercial films in a row (King of the Hill and The Underneath) were followed up with an absolutely wild, irreverent and pointedly anti-audience feature, Schizopolis (a fascinating film that deserves its own essay). This film seemed like a calculated attempt to keep his sensibilities underground, and to evade being pigeonholed as a genre film director, or a mainstream movie maker. And this is a trend we see throughout Soderbergh’s career. Yes, you have your Logan Luckys, but you also have films like Gray’s Anatomy (much earlier, but a fascinating counterpoint to his more broadly accessible films), a filmed, and stylised, monologue of Spalding Gray telling the story of him avoiding seeking medical care for an increasingly serious eye issue (it is not an amazing film, but it is an interesting part of a wider career).

The point is that, outside of delivering audience friendly – or awards friendly cinema (I’ve somehow managed to get this far without mentioning his acclaimed, and quite restrained, two-part biopic of Che Guevara yet), Soderbergh likes to experiment. Even his 2011 action film, Haywire, feels independent and strange. There is a filmed on the cuff sensibility to it, despite it looking striking and stylish (Soderbergh consistently makes great looking films, he just has a brilliant visual eye – often working as cinematographer under a pseudonym, like with Haywire – and with The Girlfriend Experience). Between sporadic ‘retirements’ he just makes small, independently spirited features that are deeply experimental. The Girlfriend Experience is not only one of these, it is maybe the best one of these.

This film was put together on a micro-budget, by Soderbergh standards, with a mix of actors and non-actors, and a primarily improvised script. The whole thing is filmed on a, relatively, inexpensive Red One digital camera and, again, has an on the cuff feel. There is a united aesthetic to the film – a lot of decadent, bourgeois locations with warm lighting and people in silhouette (it is really nice looking) – but it also stylistically changes on the fly. The structure is very non-linear, swapping between perspectives that, sometimes, have their own unique aesthetic. The film keeps returning to a group of wealthy white men arguing, it is shot in a purposefully low-resolution style that evokes secret filming, making it feel like you are snooping in on something you should not be seeing. This matches the content perfectly as they say entitled and horrible things and moan that the response to the recession is going to hurt the wealthy the most. They are detestable but they feel real, and Soderbergh evokes them well.

This puts The Girlfriend Experience firmly in the category of Steven Soderbergh-anti-capitalist-film. This is a surprisingly vast genre, with some fringe members (you could make an argument for Logan Lucky, Magic Mike and Behind the Candelabra – even King of the Hill – as implicit capitalist critique, but Soderbergh doesn’t always keep it implicit). Netflix projects High Flying Bird, and definitely The Laundromat, take on capitalism (the former how capitalism destructively intersects with sport), Erin Brockovich certainly implies a certain attitude towards capitalism and, well, he did make two films about Che Guevara. He also consistently resorts to making underground, anti-Hollywood cinema. The man knows what he is doing.

The approach to sex is also hardly new to Soderbergh (the man made a film called Full Frontal – which I am yet to see) with Sex, Lies and Videotape exploring sex (alongside lies and videotape), sexualisation and the commodification of sex. Like that film, The Girlfriend Experience is a very intelligent film abut sex and relationships – and how sex intersects with capitalism and control. The casting of an adult film star is purposeful, here she plays a ‘high-class escort’ who is very good at her job – and gets satisfaction from it. This film rightfully views sex work as real work, but is very aware of how parasitic capitalism takes advantage of sex workers. In this film we only really see high society, and they are all moaning about not having time, money and saying horrible things. Capitalism is the villain here and we see how these people, the elite, intersect with the political and bend everything to their advantage.

In this film, Sasha Grey is not the problem, she is empowered and gives a great performance. What surrounds her, and the people who want to use her – in the exploitative sense – are the problem. The film is sporadically structured, as mentioned early, which approximates the bizarre structuring of our protagonist’s life, where she is driven by the whims of others and so often out of control. We see her in verite moments, a sequence of symbolically interesting encounters, and her talking to friends – and colleagues – and spending time with her seemingly supportive boyfriend. The boyfriend is a fascinating fixture, personifying the very stereotypical male obsession with owning sexuality, a trait that grows throughout the film – where support, driven by capitalistic complications, morphs into suspicion and dominance. But we also have a portrait of our young protagonist as someone just seeking connection. Something that continues to be a disappointment for her as she is used by the entitled around her. Money talks and she is commodified by the pernicious elite. Again, it is not sex as work that is a problem, it is the people at the top of her society who take advantage of this. It is the parasitic behaviours encouraged by capitalism. it is entitlement.

The best show of this is an interaction with a reviewer. This again takes on a symbolic purpose: every time a reviewer of anything is in a film, you know there is some wider commentary going on. But Soderbergh gets an actual film critic, Glen Kenny, to play his sleazy journalist – one who actually says that a bonus of one of his projects is that it ‘feels like white slavery but isn’t’, again, the politics around exploitation are clear in this film. This critic wants to write about our protagonist, but also wishes to ‘sample’ her, entering a grotesque and coercive dynamic that opens up a lot of questions and speaks clearly to a profound issue around consent in sex work under capitalism.

The muddying of the waters, the pushing of the industry into vice territory – and the lack of legitimacy and protections – all encouraged by capitalistic apparatus, create multifaceted issues. Soderbergh does not explore all of these but he shows, empathetically, the fallout from them. This is not a leering film, this is a beautiful film, but one that also feels very slice of life and functional. It contains so much insight about humanity, with brilliantly captured conversations that record the slippery boundaries and opportunities for exploitation that facilitate the elite and that are opened up by our systems. This is an uncomfortable, cerebral and precisely made film that stands up alongside Soderbergh’s very best.

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