Steven Soderbergh's a difficult figure to pin down, because he's both approachable and completely elusive. As a man who usually serves as his own cinematographer, he has a direct relationship with the images that make up his films. More than any American director’s, his is a camera-pen. That is, if Johnnie To is the director most interested in an image's dynamic possibilities, Soderbergh is, at least in American cinema, the one most interested in its static potential. His approach is the old conceit of the director as a writer, taken to its logical conclusion: unpoetic and without loyalty. He's is a writer only in the sense that he writes, that he knows just as well how to compose an airplane novel (Ocean's Thirteen), a palimpsest (The Good German), a novella (Bubble), a Newsweek photo essay (Traffic) or an articulate polemic (Che). He's a good student, too: in his newest film, The Girlfriend Experience, there’s a use of signs and real-life figures as quotations learned from Godard—who learned it from Ophüls and Sirk, respectively—and a sense of focus (or an idea of focal length as something solid) even more rigid than in Tokyo Sonata. There are also some of the most articulate and alien images Soderbergh has ever created. They're something colder than despair, because despair requires a measure of humanity.
When he films lead Sasha Grey (playing an escort) doing her makeup in the mirror, we know that, first and foremost, he is filming a mirror, and that it's of only second importance how that mirror reflects its owner. The next shot—of her and a client having breakfast at his rooftop garden—is firstly an image of the spectacular (and expensive) view of the city the garden affords. A mise-en-scène originated from real estate appraisals, much in the same way as Curtis Hanson seemed to channel catalogs and stock photos for Bad Influence. When we hear their murmuring voices, they blend into the sound of traffic, as though Soderbergh was recording the rooftop and just happened to catch the conversation. Several scenes of Grey and her weight trainer boyfriend arguing are images and sounds of their apartment, the talk ruining the comforting quiet of the furniture. Of course movies are always reflecting, though never exclusively. The moving image has so many contradictory qualities that sometimes it seems like movies exist to answer some mysterious riddle (“What’s transparent, opaque and reflective at the same time?”). But there aren't many movies that've focused on one quality so exclusively: almost every image in The Girlfriend Experience is an image of a commodity and how that commodity reflects the people who own it. The effect is such that when the framing is finally dictated by something human—when Soderbergh photographs a kiss or a woman sitting in a restaurant or Grey’s crying face—it too becomes a commodity.
I live in Chicago, and around here The Girlfriend Experience is opening at the same theater and on the same day as Olivier Assayas' new movie, Summer Hours. This accidental juxtaposition pinpoints the difference between the two directors: if the Assayas film is humanity on the defensive against late capitalism, Soderbergh’s is an attempt to show late capitalism from its own perspective. To see a system through its own eyes and how that system is muddled by the human element. Muddled, but undefeated. Contrary to a lot of opinion, the film’s plot isn’t jumbled: the conversations and interactions happen out of order, but the progression of objects and ideas is presented in a linear sequence. A linearity born out of an idea instead of a chronology, like the reverse progression of Alain Resnais' Le chant du Styrène. The terrifying truth is that The Girlfriend Experience isn’t a movie about Grey—physical and vocal decor in her own film!—but about the fact that gold is a good investment in the current economic climate. In some ways, the movie seems pornographic, and it's because in its progression it captures, as though by accident, a certain innocence--that sort of innocence that ends up incriminating the audience. The performances are almost virginal, with Grey's flat teenage whine giving her a subtly expressive amateurishness that’s better than anything a trained and careful voice could stir; it makes the words we overhear her say seem banal and therefore more dangerous.