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May 29, 2009


The Girlfriend Experience: that's what professional actors are for

The Girlfriend ExperienceI finally watched Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience (only $6.99 to rent on Amazon, now that it's also out in theaters!) More than enough has already been said about this movie, mostly about casting real-life porn star Sasha Gray to play an expensive prostitute, and how the buying and selling of people and relationships runs through many aspects of modern life.

I mostly liked the movie, especially the structure that jumps back and forth through time, returning to a couple of key scenes that grow more resonant as the audience learns more about what happened before and after. Soderbergh is really good at slow, deliberate revelations about his characters, and creating a bunch of little snapshots that add up to something bigger than the sum of the parts.

This movie works in the same way that other smaller movies of his do, like Full Frontal or The Limey: really nicely shot, no wasted scenes, repetition of important moments, building up to a few really amazing scenes. You hardly knew you were as into it as you were.

But: it would have worked so much better if he had cast a real actress instead of Sasha Grey. The movie got more attention that it probably would have, but this is pure stunt casting. It helped make some kind of interesting meta-points about buying and selling people and the sex industry, but didn't help the movie at all.

Sasha Gray is great at playing cold and distant, and her character spends most of the movie with clients wearing an emotional suit of armor. Her clients are ostensibly paying for the "girlfriend experience", but what they actually want is a pretty woman who will sit quietly and listen to them talk, speak only when spoken to, and when she does speak, agree with everything they say. The sex part is almost incidental. Sasha Grey is great in these scenes at conveying the blank receptivity that the clients want.

What she's less good at is conveying that there's more going on beneath the surface. It makes sense for the clients to see her as a pretty, reflective screen onto which they can project whatever they're paying for. But in order for the audience to care about her, we need to see that she's a real person underneath the shiny exterior. She needs to show layers, where the characters in the movie see one thing, and the audience sees something more.

This is why we have professional actors. But even the other inexperienced actors in the movie are better at this than Sasha Gray is. There are a few scenes of her personal trainer boyfriend Chris, played by Chris Santos, where we watch him talking to his clients, and we can see him projecting one thing to them, while allowing the audience to see more happening under the surface. One client, attempting to have an honest conversation with his hired trainer, asks "what are you doing this weekend?" Chris' reaction is more layered than just about anything Sasha Gray does in the whole movie.

Not to say that she can't play anything other than detached blankness. Late in the movie, when her character experiences closeness, then sadness and disappointment in some unguarded moments with another character, she's great at that. But those scenes don't mean that much because we haven't seen any real human emotion in her until then.

If Soderbergh hadn't gone for the stunt casting choice, what pretty young actress could he have cast? I think someone like Evan Rachel Wood would have been good--think of those early scenes in Thirteen when she's clearly conflicted about the questionable stuff her new bad-girl friend is getting into. Or in The Wrestler, when we can see the difference between how she's acting toward Mickey Rourke and how she actually feels on the inside.

Or maybe someone from Vanity Fair's Young Hollywood issue, like Summer Bishil. Or Emma Roberts, Eric Roberts' daughter. She's probably good, right?

Casting someone like Sasha Grey makes the movie feel more like an elaborate conceptual experiment than a movie we're supposed to watch and respond to for what it is in itself. Like he wanted it to be critic-proof. As Owen Gleiberman pointed out, there are a number of unsubtle jabs at critics in the movie, though Soderbergh denies they're there.

You can say that he cast Sasha Gray to get more publicity, and to draw a connection between service work in which people use each other as substitutes for something else, and movie audiences who want to believe that actors' performances are real. OK, well, it was still a bad choice.

categories: Movies
posted by amy at 11:19 AM | #

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Definitely stunt casting, and I largely agree that Grey's out-acted by all the other non-professionals in the movie. And yet... I liked her. Partly because I feel like her blank semi-humanity is sort of appropriate for the character, and the movie. But even more because I think it actually works as a stunt; the stunt deepens the movie much like the casting of the similarly under-talented Brigette Bardot in CONTEMPT.

That is: It's really easy to see Sasha Grey have crazy sex. But seeing her play a character is rare. I was really struck by the thought from the very first scene---we're seeing Sasha Grey do something we haven't seen her do before. That is, we, the audience, are getting "the girlfriend experience". It puts us in a strange position right from the start, a position reinforced by Soderbergh's habit of putting objects in the foreground, between us and her (especially in the big breakup scene---even as the camera moves in, the couch blocks our ability to actually see her).

A lot of people have complained about how hard it is to feel for any of the characters in the movie, but I don't agree with that at all (I felt for all of them, including Chelsa with her dopey "personology" the only thing she believes in). What's hard to do is *identify* with the characters, and the visual distancing makes me think that's exactly the idea---we're meant to identify with ourselves as viewers, and most unpleasantly, identify with ourselves as Chelsa's clients, paying to watch her act, unconvincingly, warm & friendly.

Plus, perhaps as a male person, I found it especially pointed how convincing Grey is when she's with her clients; much more convincing than when she's being "herself". It's a sharp reminder that being a girlfriend is the easiest act in the world, while being a person is very difficult.

Posted by: That Fuzzy Bastarrd at May 29, 2009 12:51 PM

I agree with a lot of what you're saying--I felt for all the characters, too. I don't have any first-hand experience with Sasha Grey's other career, so The Girlfriend Experience was really the first time I'd seen her do anything. So I probably experienced the movie differently than you did, but I can use my imagination and appreciate that casting her in this movie was a conceptually interesting thing to do, and places the audience in the same position that her clients are in.

But I still think that casting her did nothing positive for this movie in itself. I ultimately use the question "do I care about these characters?" as the basis by which I judge most narrative movies. The movie was successful--it made me think about the loneliness and emptiness of these characters' lives as they look for love (and meaning) in all the wrong places, but her performance was an obstacle to overcome in enjoying the movie.

I did admire the careful balance that Sasha Grey uses in the scenes with clients. She's attentive and receptive, but she's fake-warm and fake-friendly. It's obvious that it's an act, and no real girlfriend would be so inert and cold (I hope.)

During the breakup scene with the real boyfriend, she goes into the same inert, cold, non-responsiveness, which made sense. I just needed a little more evidence of the person beneath to care much about the character, regardless of who was playing her.

Posted by: amy at May 29, 2009 1:15 PM

Well, I admit that I too hadn't seen any of her other work before seeing the movie (no, really!). But the awareness that she is a porn star in her other life definitely played into how I watched her in the film, just like it does when I watch, say, Klaus Kinski knowing he's actually a crazy person.

I actually found her early scenes a little eerie in how precisely they got the standard shallow-girlfriend schtick---it was the best acting she did in the whole movie, which made me wonder if her inertness elsewhere really was a deliberate choice. After I got back from the movie, I looked up both some of her interviews and some of her porn work, and she's actually a much more animated performer normally, so I think the deadness may be part of the movie's overall scheme (I like your observation that it's something Chelsa deliberately retreats to when men get emotional at her).

It is true that I found myself caring more about the boyfriend, or at least enjoying him more as a screen presence. But I think Soderbergh, like his beloved Godard, doesn't want you wholeheartedly caring about the characters (her performance reminded me a lot of Anna Karina's work, with its charming surface and sullen brushing off of depth). I mean, I did mist up a little when Chelsa found herself abandoned in the Hamptons, but for the most part, I kinda respected the movie's refusal to ever really let you in; much of why the journalist character is there, I think, is to specifically rebuke the viewer's desire to cross her boundaries. The girlfriend experience--- the feeling of knowing someone--- is sort of what all movies are selling, and Soderbergh seems out to remind us that it's something you can't really buy, from a hooker, a porn star, or an actor.

Again, I do understand how the movie's willful insistence on cutting off some really basic sources of narrative pleasure can be pretty off-putting. It didn't bug me so much, though, I think partly because I feel like so few movies of late are willing to ask the viewer to set aside some standard satisfactions in favor of sharper observation (we have plenty, like the latest from highbrow schlockmeister von Trier, that revel in the unpleasant, but that's not quite the same). So I give more points to Soderbergh's American Antonioni act than I would if he were making films in, say, 1974. We're currently in an era when movies seem more than ever like desperate streetwalkers, frantically trying to keep my attention, so I treasure a movie that seems willing to take or leave me.

Posted by: That Fuzzy Bastarrd at May 29, 2009 10:56 PM

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