(Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel--on the passage from boyhood to manhood-"The prison walls of self had closed entirely round him; he was walled completely by the esymplastic power of his imagination -- he had learned by now to project mechanically, before the world, an acceptable counterfeit of himself which would protect him from intrusion. He no longer went through the torment of the...flight and pursuit.")
Stephen Soderbergh's twentieth film, The Girlfriend Experience, introduces Sasha Grey to audiences less acquainted with scenes of gang bang and anal penetrations. Sasha, a notorious young porn star, written about in mainstream press for describing her porn work as Performance Art, contextualizes her career/craft ambitions with those of Anna Karina and J-L Godard.
The girlfriend experience is, on one level, a specific type of escort work, one designed more as an actual date with more kissing/intimate actions than is usually normal. On a second level, the film refers to the experiential nature of acting as if: his camera quietly follows as it rips down commonly shared beliefs on what is a real and what is a false (one with services bought and sold) relationship. Men and women can inhabit the role of gf and bf with or without $ to very similar if not identical results.
Soderbergh's film quietly (and not chronologically) chronicles the objectification of both genders in romantic relationships; the element of performance and leap of romantic faith as fantasy that each partner must choose to take when believing love as an actual quality of life. These are common lies that his film lays bare.
Soderbergh , as Amy Taubin aptly pointed out, makes somewhat structural films (a la Che and The Limey) where application and subject merge. As with Che 's merging themes of strategy and tactics, TGE is as much about escorts as it is about the process, though here it's more specifically the politics, of seduction. Perhaps inspired by Ashley Du Pre/Spitzer and the corporeal politics of finance and recession, TGE eludes any easy category of expose or sycophant- like escort worship. It is a film about stories, and structures, and lies. The Capitalist leap of magical thinking needed to trust the 'Market' is foregrounded here by similarly magical cultural myths weighing down gender roles in conventional coupling. Ideology informs the myth of boyfriend /girlfriend. The heterosexual power couple as commodity fetish-- as altered by competition and infected by profit motive as anything in the marketplace.
TGE catalogs it's protagonist's experiences out of chronological order. Scenes of Chelsea (Sasha's character on the job) and scenes of Christine (Sasha's character off the job) are like Che part 1 and Che part 2, following what Soderbergh described as a call and response relational system. No voyeuristic seduction is used to suck the viewer in to some lurid view of our heroine. Soderbergh prefers this journey as cool and chilly as its color template. The film believably favors the perspective, constantly masked and operating on multiple levels of performance as it is, of Sasha's character.
If countless moviegoers and critics alike missed the point when reading Sasha as 'cold' or 'plastic' then it is even less surprising to read A. O. Scott write that "The idea that Chelsea, the girlfriend for sale, is herself succumbing to the false allure of the girlfriend experience, is an interesting one, but neither the script, by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who also wrote “Ocean’s Thirteen”), nor Ms. Grey’s cool, tentative acting can quite sustain the level of emotional complication necessary to bring it to dramatic life." (NYT 5.22.09) Perpetually saddened by the lack of gender intelligent film critics, I can't feign surprise at such comments. Scott is wrong because he fails to understand a basic fact of sex work. These work relationships are real relationships. And as Soderbergh asserts on this boomerang fold that endlessly reflects back on itself, real relationships are work relationships. love is a system of transactions. Business necessitates leaps of magical thinking and romance is a stage where we simply role play.
Chelsea/Christine/Sasha is a businesswoman who smartly organises her clients. But they are nonetheless actual relationships. This is hard to believe for most men since she is a 'woman' and she is a 'sex worker' but She is a person , with real affection, actual love ties, masks and all.
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