Ostensibly a jazzy, nonlinear short story about the emotional life of a high-end Manhattan hooker, this latest entry in The Steven Soderbergh Eclecticism Project is less a sexy confection than a sly satire on capitalism. Or, more specifically, a satire on capitalists during a recession. The film takes place in the last days of the 2008 Presidential campaign, as the first shockwaves from the current economic downturn are still resonating. Just about everyone on screen is concerned about holding down a job, from the expensive call girl “Chelsea” (contemporary porn star Sasha Grey) who frets about the new batch of hookers who might be that little bit younger, more alluring, and more obliging, to her less affluent boyfriend, a bottom-rung personal trainer who keeps looking for an entr ée to gym management (though he considers himself too special and unique a snowflake to don the company T-shirt). Even the journalist who interviews her is involved, it is clear, in a kind of commerce. And what kind of job is journalist, really, in today’s economy?
It’s often said of smart women working in the sex trade that they exercise a great deal of power over the men who are their customers, which may be true. Certainly Soderbergh’s film, which was shot in the plush digital 4K format (the number refers to resolution — in this case more than four times that of high-definition video), emphasizes the soft, warm qualities of lighting in posh New York restaurants where she spends her time. (The disconnect between the glossiness of the digital images and the pervasive economic unease infuses the film with a kind of nostalgia for a world that doesn’t exist at this moment but that the movies have always been so good at conveying, making it a sort of instant time capsule. See also the overexposed, washed-out quality of scenes that depict private-jet transit to Las Vegas, the blanket of light covering and overwhelming the image representing, technically, the idea of a consumer video camera in the hands of a novice but suggesting, expressionistically, a picture that’s been blasted out by exuberant luxury spending.) But the sense of comfort a meal at Craftsteak provides is illusory. Because Chelsea’s not stupid, she knows that her lifestyle has an expiration date, and it’s that anxiety that makes her vulnerable.
One of the men who gets at her underbelly is a screenwriter client with wife and kids. He opens a crack in her shell, creating a personal connection that she ends up regretting. And then there’s The Erotic Connoisseur, a great doughy mass of a man who lives in the back room of a Brooklyn furniture warehouse from whence he deploys detailed and influential reviews of escort services for an apparently large online audience. (Premiere magazine’s one-time lead critic Glenn Kenny is very good in the role, but as far as his parasitic character speaks to Soderbergh’s opinion of movie critics, well, ouch.) Approaching this potential transaction, she guards both her value and her dignity, but ends up getting screwed.
The Girlfriend Experience is a terrific movie-as-microcosm, examining not only the delicacy and inscrutability of intimate relationships, but also the ways that money colors everything. The efficacy of Soderbergh’s chronology-jumbling editorial style has never been greater, as he perfects here the art of holding out on the audience, waiting to deliver banal images until enough has transpired, story-wise, to give them some weight. You think more, for instance, of her unremarkable conversations with the screenwriter if you see them after you learn what ultimately comes of their relationship, rather than before. I think of many film flashbacks as an irritating (because patronizing) technique, but Soderbergh legitimizes them by weaving them into the very fabric of narrative. When everything is a flashback, then nothing is a flashback. Rather, it’s a feeling of simultaneity. It’s not a story we’re being told but something we’re remembering and processing in our heads, a dream enriched by its apparent awkwardness.
Speaking of awkwardness, The Girlfriend Experience reaches its final scene in the backroom of a diamond merchant, where a Jewish client informs Chelsea, sadly, that the smart money is in gold, not diamonds, after all. Then he instructs her that she must vote McCain in order to ensure the continued existence of a Jewish state. (If such thoughts are in her pretty head, I missed the evidence.) And, finally, in the only scene in the film that’s remotely explicit, our heroine brings this gentle, portly man to climax by the power of her mere embrace. (I’m not sure their hips are even touching.) What the world needs now: tension and release. This final deflation is a fine, touchstone moment in Soderbergh’s career — wry yet compassionate, tender yet ridiculous. It’s an enthusiastic commingling of the vulgar and the sublime.