I miss middle-period Steven Soderbergh, the filmmaker who merged his artistic and commercial instincts into a terrific night at the movies, who directed Out of Sight, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and, most especially, The Limey. Each bubbled with Soderbergh's profound love and enthusiasm for moviemaking.
Today, there are two faces to Soderbergh: Hollywood product machine (Ocean's 11, 12, 13) and the intellectual lo-fi auteur (Che, Bubble). Neither is particularly satisfying. The Girlfriend Experience is his latter face.
With more than a nod to Godard, Soderbergh's fragmented storyline (the past is barely discernible from the future) and icy chic cinematography explore the life of a young escort (porn star Sasha Grey) and her physical trainer boyfriend (Chris Santos). But the juxtaposition of their experiences is less an occasion for penetrating drama and more an opportunity to examine and satirize the transactional influences of capitalism on personal relationships. And much like Godard's suggestion that spiritual prostitution is the ultimate result of capitalism, GFE is a joyless hall of mirrors, reflecting the dehumanizing effect of fanatical consumerism and entrepreneurship. It's a compelling, if obvious, idea to hang a movie on, but without human longing or connection the effect is more rhetorical than anything.
Of course, the point of attraction is the stunt casting of the notoriously carnal Grey, known for a proclivity for anal sex. With her flat affect, alert stare and practiced detachment there's a sense of authenticity. Unfortunately, that's not much of a character creation. And casting a porn queen in a straight role is hardly new territory. Putting the direct-to-video aspirations of Traci Lords aside, German director Fatih Akin's emotionally devastating 2004 film Head On featured an impressive breakout performance by Sibel Kekilli.
Wry, sterile and strangely compassionate, GFE is another intriguing Soderbergh puzzle. Unfortunately, it's one few people will want to solve.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.