With characteristic eclecticism, Steven Soderbergh follows “Che,” his sweeping four-hour epic about a revolutionary hero, with “The Girlfriend Experience,” a small-scale, digitally shot 77-minute chamber piece about a high-priced prostitute. Despite the pic’s erotic subject matter and star (vet porn diva Sasha Grey), nothing could be less sensationalistic — or moralistic — than this fascinating study of free enterprise in free fall. While it may disappoint thrill-seekers, “Girlfriend” should still delight Soderbergh fans and niche auds. Sundance-sneaked (in rough cut) and officially preeming at Tribeca before a May 22 opening, this arthouse gem finds the helmer in top, and truly topical, form.
Pic follows upscale call girl Chelsea (Grey, in an interestingly opaque perf) and her trainer boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) over five chronologically scrambled days in the weeks before the 2008 election. Set in the trendy, low-lit haunts of New York’s high rollers (the venues looking far sleeker and more anonymous than in the bright pastels of “Sex and the City” and other glossy Gotham fantasies), the pic presents a society in which every interaction reps a form of commodity exchange.
Everything is a brand: Chelsea advertises herself on her website, while her apparel designers figure more prominently than her johns in her journal (read in voiceover). Everybody has a get-rich scheme: Chris tries to shop himself around at various gyms and hawks a line of sports clothes on the side, while Chelsea yearns to own a boutique and quizzes her clients about recession-proof investments.
Soderbergh’s complex, never-gimmicky shuffling of time subtly fragments the narrative to reveal the characters’ untoward depths of self-delusion. Sometimes the irony proves less subtle, as in Chelsea’s back-room encounter with the Erotic Connoisseur, a super-sleazy porn reviewer (portrayed convincingly by former Premiere critic Glenn Kenny) who mercilessly disses her charms in cyberspace, the narration of his review counterpointed by street muscians’ rousing rendition of “Everyone’s a Critic.”
Like Godard, Soderbergh views prostitution as the ultimate paradigm for capitalism. But where Godard saw the hooker as a tragic or exploited victim (“My Life to Live,” “Two or Three Things I Know About Her”), Soderbergh suggests there are no victims, only failed traders, in the post-Reagan era of DIY capitalism. Subverting the helmer’s own megabuck “Ocean’s” franchise, “Girlfriend” exposes the downside to those films’ shiny, expensive stars and money-snatching thrills (“Ocean’s Thirteen” was penned by “Girlfriend” scripters Brian Koppelman and David Levien).
Furthermore, in contrast to “Bubble,” Soderbergh’s earlier HD experiment with an other-end-of-the-telescope dissection of lower-class specimens, the helmer here wields total control of the pic’s uniquely detached, seriocomic tone. The nervous hype of a group of hedge-fund managers, who insist on treating Chris to a private-jet weekend in Vegas, seems organically connected to the handheld camera swinging wildly from one partygoer to the next.
Chelsea, meanwhile, is a creature of cool surfaces and static interiors, ensconced in tony galleries, pricey restaurants and luxurious hotel rooms as she delivers the full “girlfriend experience” — complete with thoughtful inquiries about clients’ wives and kiddies, informed appreciation of “Man on Wire” and commiseration over the nose-diving economy.
Tech credits mesh faultlessly, as Soderbergh lensed and edited under his usual pseudonyms. Score by Morcheeba’s Ross Godfrey hits all the rightly stressful notes.