The Girlfriend Experience feels as arbitrary a film as one made by a director who can make films whenever he wants. So, more power to Steven Soderbergh. Ever after the remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris in 2002, Soderbergh has become the most challenging American filmmaker, producing warmly hued, coolly toned works of cerebral cinema that seem strikingly disinterested in their subjects. Shooting and often editing the films himself, this might point to Soderbergh being a director who simply relishes the act of filmmaking, using a script, a subject, as a skeleton framework to play with the tools and expressions of the art. But The Good German, Ocean’s 13, the two Che films, and now The Girlfriend Experience—the second film along with Bubble that was shot digitally using mostly non-professional actors on a low budget for simultaneous distribution in theaters and on television—never suggest a filmmaker having fun, or an artist experimenting. I’m not actually sure what they suggest; thus, the challenge.
This new film is one of the first, and will undoubtably remain one of the strangest, examples of contemporary recession-era cinema. The script, by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, despite focusing on a high-class escort (Sasha Grey) and her trainer boyfriend (Chris Santos), is almost entirely structured around one-on-one conversations regarding the state of the economy for people wealthy enough to afford high-class escorts and personal trainers. Shot on the quick on location in New York and enabled by the “marvels” of top-notch digital technology, The Girlfriend Experience is an economic and artistic paradox formulated around the simultaneous worry about and hazy distance from capitalistic economies. With a prostitute trying to market herself and expand her brand as her clients take her out to expensive dinners and hotels and bemoan their financial affairs, the film fragments the episodic encounters of both the girlfriend and the boyfriend into impersonal, interview-like conversations about status in a business world. That’s the set-up, the gist of the subject. So where’s the problem?
As a kind of answer, let me give an example of this recent Soderbergh style. Two-thirds the way through The Girlfriend Experience there is a shopping sequence, where the escort goes from boutique to boutique in Soho looking at clothing. In this sequence there are several insert shots of purses. Immediately, these purses signify two things: (a) seeing the woman go into a store and the combination of a shot of a purse implies that this woman is shopping or at least looking to shop; and that (b) these are probably examples of things this woman buys or is looking to buy. But what else? What is the character’s attitude towards this purse, to these high-end shops, to shopping or having to shop? What is the film’s attitude towards this object, this act? What position—emotional, psychological, thematic, moral, ideological—does The Girlfriend Experience take in regards to this purse? I would be hard pressed to say. And it’s just a purse, one might point out; except the retort is that almost all of the film, and all of Che too, is like this pursue, prompting these questions. This is why Soderbergh is the foremost practitioner of cerebral cinema in the world today, because his films posit a question about artistic attitude and intentionality so intrinsic to one’s attraction to cinema that their existence isn’t even thought about. We often talk about movies as if the attitude and intentionality of a movie were already set in stone. Neutral cinema, or neutral art, is, of course, a paradoxical impossibility, but film after film Steven Soderbergh is utilizing filmmaking for a means and for an end that don’t seem clear, and not enough people seem to be seeing the challenge that exists in these works.