The Girlfriend Experience (Blu-ray)
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Film Length: 77 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: May 22, 2009
Blu-ray Release Date: Sept. 29, 2009
Steven Soderbergh may be an Oscar-winning director with a popcorn trilogy on his résumé, but he keeps returning to his indie roots. His latest foray, The Girlfriend Experience, was shot in sixteen days on a budget of less than $2 million. Most of the attention has been on the film’s star, Sasha Grey, making her legitimate film debut at 20 after a successful career in porn (which she hasn’t abandoned). But although Grey is an interesting presence, she isn’t what makes The Girlfriend Experience worth watching.
“Chelsea” (Grey) is a high-class Manhattan call girl offering a specialized service. She will have dinner with you, talk to you, listen to you, relate to you – and anyone eavesdropping on the conversation would think she was your girlfriend. But when the appointment is over, you will pay her several thousand dollars in cash, and she will leave to return to her real life, where her name is Christine and she lives with her real boyfriend, Chris, a personal trainer, who knows exactly what she does for a living.
Because The Girlfriend Experience is presented in a fractured chronology and is less a story than a series of tantalizing character snapshots, it resists any kind of plot summary. The film is set in the fall of 2008, before the presidential election but well into the economic crisis, which is on everyone’s mind. We see Chelsea interacting with a wide array of clients, each of whom has a different “girlfriend experience” need. We also see her meeting with her money manager, with a fellow professional, with a journalist trying to write about her profession, and with a variety of operators seeking to promote and/or exploit her (the line between promotion and exploitation being as thin for Chelsea as it is for most performers). Between appointments, Chelsea keeps careful notes on each appointment: what she wore, what the client wore, what the client discussed, what they did together. (Grey says in her commentary that she took this behavior from one particular “TGE” call girl she interviewed, who said it was the only way she could remember enough about each client to keep up the illusion.)
The closest thing to a traditional plot development occurs when Chelsea unexpectedly develops feelings for a client and decides to go away with him for the weekend. This causes a rift in her real life as Christine, because her real boyfriend Chris objects. Chris then joins one of his clients (and friends) on a weekend junket to Las Vegas that he had previously turned down.
At the end of the film, the only thing that’s clear is that Chelsea is still working. There was never any doubt that she would be.
The Girlfriend Experience is a film of surfaces, and Soderbergh has staged and photographed the film to make the viewer feel as much as possible like a voyeur. The non-professional cast (whether or not Sasha Grey can be called a “professional” actor is mere semantics) improvised their dialogue within a set structure, which gives the dialogue the kind of stilted affect that everyday speech has when it’s isolated, frozen and recorded. This is not a style of movie-making designed to draw you in, but to push you away. And while you’re standing back, you can’t help but be dazzled by the beauty of each shot, chilly and sterile though it may be. (As Grey says in the commentary, even people who hate the film admit that it’s beautiful.)
I found it hard to watch The Girlfriend Experience without constantly thinking of the film that first put Soderbergh on the map. Sex, Lies and Videotape also dealt with the same queasy element of voyeurism, but there it was one character’s problem, and it was ultimately resolved (maybe too neatly). Here, voyeurism infuses every aspect of the film; it’s the film’s fundamental style. And where James Spader’s character in Sex, Lies was a voyeur in the classic sense – he’s both attracted to and repelled by female sexuality – The Girlfriend Experience is touching on a much more elusive fascination: intimacy. Chelsea costs so much, because the commodity she’s offering, a real human connection, is so scarce. The uncomfortable question asked by Soderbergh’s camera is whether that’s even what she’s offering.
The film was shot on hi-def video, and the Blu-ray reproduces the image without any apparent compromise. Colors, detail and black level appear to be exactly what Soderbergh (shooting under his usual pseudonym, “Peter Andrews”) wanted. The Girlfriend Experience uses a stylized palette and carefully chosen camera angles to impart a chilly sheen to every shot. The technique is so effective that even the New York locations I’m very familiar with looked completely alien. The Blu-ray brings this experience to the home theater with excellent fidelity.
The DTS-MA HD track is clear and clean. Dialogue is paramount, especially because the dialogue from one scene often overlaps another. The surrounds are used sparingly, consistent with the documentary style of the filmmaking. (Soderbergh’s sound designer, Larry Blake, used a similar approach in Traffic.)
Commentary by Steven Soderbergh and Sasha Grey. Soderbergh states at the outset that he doesn’t like commentaries and won’t do them alone. As if to demonstrate the point, he spends most of the running time interviewing Grey, and he doesn’t stick to the making of the film. Although Soderbergh drops a few illuminating anecdotes about the filming process along the way, he is maddeningly quiet about what inspired him to make it and why the subject matter intrigued him. As a commentator, he remains as elusive as the character Chelsea, and perhaps that’s the most revealing point in the commentary.
HDNet: A Look at The Girlfriend Experience (4:37). The broadcast version of an EPK, this originally aired on HDNet. The most intriguing item is the brief interview with Soderbergh in which he reveals that the idea for the film occurred to him when he read a magazine interview with Grey. (In the commentary, he reveals the additional fact that the two writers of the film, who also wrote Ocean’s Thirteen, once pointed out to him a woman at a bar who they believed to be a call girl who provided “the girlfriend experience”.)
The video for this extra exhibits serious combing issues that are evident when there is any motion. It is the worst quality hi-def image I have seen since I began watching Blu-ray. When every interview subject looks like he or she has been passed through a shredder, you would think someone in QC might notice.
Trailers. At startup the disc plays trailers for Two Lovers, What Just Happened, The Life Before Her Eyes and HDNet and HDNet Movies. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button, and the trailers for the three films are separately available under Special Features.
Unrated Alternate Cut. During the commentary, Soderbergh mentions that he would like to try a completely different cut of the film using different footage and different editing choices, and that he is discussing that possibility with Magnolia. The discussions resulted in this unusual special feature, which is almost exactly the same length as the main feature and is also presented with a DTS-HD MA soundtrack and optional English SDH subtitles. (The codec is VC-1.)
I gave up watching this after realizing that I wasn’t really absorbing the differences. It may not be the same for all viewers, but I need to let some time pass between viewing the two versions (just as Soderbergh let time past between preparing the two cuts). From what I viewed, it was evident that the alternate cut has been mastered with the same care and quality as the main feature.
BD-Live. Although the features menu contains an entry for BD-Live, it appears that Magnolia has yet to make any content available.
The critic A.O. Scott, now on At the Movies, is not known for being reticent with his opinions, but even he didn’t know what to make of The Girlfriend Experience. In his print review, he chose to regard the film as a contemporary record whose meaning wouldn’t become clear until sometime in the future. I prefer to think of the film as a portrait of the Artist Formerly Known as Graham (in Sex, Lies and Videotape), still hiding behind his camera, still asking the same questions about an intimacy he views from the outside, but now with a deeper and more worldly understanding of how intimacy accommodates itself to a harsh and unforgiving environment where everyone is hustling and the world is for sale.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub