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On Movies: 'Girlfriend' is too experienced

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2009 - The production notes for “The Girlfriend Experience,” Steven Soderbergh’s crisp, provocative new low-budget film about a high-class call girl, describes its female star this way:

“Sasha Grey, born March 14, 1988, in Sacramento, California is an American actor, writer, photographer, porn star, transgressive artist and experimental musician.”

Throwing “porn star” in the middle of those other, more high-falutin’ vocations can either be taken as a smug joke or as an announcement to the world (or at least that part of the world with access to press kits) that peddling sex is just like any other creative endeavor. And the biographical material in the press kit also mentions she has modeled for American Apparel before ticking off some of the awards she has won from pornographic film organizations: “Best Group Sex Scene,” “Best Oral Sex Scene,” and so forth. (Goodness knows what the statuettes look like.)

Indeed, if Soderbergh – who makes edgy low-budget features between episodes in the “Ocean’s Eleven series” – can be said to be making a point in “The Girlfriend Experience” and not just observing the business of penthouse (small p) prostitution, the point is that it’s all about the benjamins – and a lot of them.

“Chelsea,” the well-coiffed hooker played by Sasha Grey, charges $2,000 for an hour of pretending to be at least halfway in love with hedge-fund managers and diamond brokers. The full treatment, ending with croissants and coffee in bed, can run up into five figures. If you missed the point, between sexual bouts, all these guys can talk about is money and how much the current economic unpleasantness has cut into their ability to pay for their time-share in the Gulfstream G550.

The film, shot quickly last fall on video, much of the time in dimly lit, expensive looking restaurants and hotel suites, with burnished gold surfaces reflecting off cold expanses of glass, hops back and forth through time to tell the story of Chelsea and her live-in boyfriend Chris, who is an upwardly striving personal trainer. Much of Chelsea’s time is spent managing her business and trying to maintain a sophisticated image on her Website and in the ads she runs in various listings of escort services. Soderbergh follows her around some of the posher neighborhoods of Manhattan as she takes meetings with Web designers and buys $500 shoes and La Perla thong underwear.

At times, he shifts attention to Chris (played by former personal trainer Chris Santos), who, like Sasha, is always trying to sell himself to rich people. On the whole, these two beautiful young people on the make in New York are quite good at what they do, which is sell themselves. But from the moment you meet them, you know their relationship is headed for trouble.

If you are looking for sexual titillation, you might want to rent one of Sasha’s other movies. I’m told they are quite explicit. This one is not. “The Girlfriend Experience” is about as sexy as a stainless steel refrigerator, and I say that with full knowledge that some people are turned on by a $6,000 Sub-Zero.

Toward the end, in a somewhat melodramatic turn, the plot slides into questions about the relationship between love and sex – if you keep acting like you’re in love, are you in danger of actually falling in love? It’s a legitimate question, one you might ask Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and countless other movie co-stars. But coming as it does, toward the end of a movie as cold-surfaced as a granite countertop, it seems a little forced.

But even then, with Sasha briefly stymied in ambitions of the heart, the movie quickly returns to its main subject – money. In the end, like “The Godfather,” “The Girlfriend Experience” is about American capitalism, and it could almost as well have featured, say, a young man or woman making his or her way through the caverns of Manhattan with a Green technology startup as a young prostitute with pretensions of sophistication and elegance.

Is “Girlfriend Experience” a good movie? I don’t think it works dramatically – the plot twists near the end are too close to cliché. And some feminists may find it offensive for not noting that prostitutes, even high-class ones, are often physically mistreated and even murdered.

But there is a kind of repellent fascination in watching Sasha Grey, a surprisingly good actress who also knows the business of sex, playing a young woman trying to rise to the top in a new, wired-in version of the world’s oldest profession. It’s hard to take your eyes off of Sasha, her loins scantily girded beneath a demure Lord and Taylor suit, as she heads into the canyons of Manhattan to wage economic warfare.

Opens May 22.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.