January 25, 2009 / 10:27 PM / 10 years ago

Soderbergh's "Girlfriend" an emotionally cool puzzle

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - One of the worst-kept secrets at Sundance was that the festival’s poster boy, Steven Soderbergh, would screen his latest film, “The Girlfriend Experience,” Tuesday evening at the Eccles Theater as a “sneak preview.” Before a large turnout, Soderbergh declared his film a “work in progress.” It did lack end credits, and the director-cinematographer indicated that the images and overall color might still need work.

Director Steven Soderbergh attends the "Che" news conference at the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival September 10, 2008. REUTERS/ Mike Cassese

So consider this a review in progress, a sneak peek at the latest film experiment by one of cinema’s more fertile imaginations. Indeed, his films now seem to fall into three categories: Hollywood productions like the “Ocean’s” series, audacious stretches in filmmaking and distribution like the underappreciated “Che” and research-and-development projects like “Girlfriend.”

This latest film is a follow-up to “Bubble,” his $1 million HD movie that made a splash in 2005 when it went out simultaneously to theaters and cable television, only days before its DVD release. According to the director’s post-screening Q&A with the audience, he shot “Girlfriend” over 16 days in New York in October at a cost of $1.7 million, using the latest sexy digital camera called the Red camera.

Written by “Ocean’s Thirteen” writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien — according to movie-date website IMDb — the 78-minute “Girlfriend” centers on a high-priced Manhattan call girl played by porn star Sasha Grey, who is alternately named Chelsea and Christine. All other actors, according to Soderbergh, are nonpros cast for their similarity to the characters.

Thus, journalist Mark Jacobson, who has written exposes of escort services, turns up as a journalist who interviews Chelsea, while Internet blogger/film critic Glenn Kenny is cast as a sleazy online writer who induces Chelsea to have sex with him so he can “review” her services. He gives her a nasty review.

The narrative is presented as a jigsaw puzzle, with random scenes appearing out of sequence, to force the viewer to put the story together. (Soderbergh said that in this regard the film resembles “The Limey,” his terrific 1999 crime drama.) Its heroine has an open-minded, live-in boyfriend (Chris Santos) and is a businesswoman with her clients and the men she seeks out to help expand her escort business and get investment advice.

This is a business like any other, only one that could destroy anybody who has not developed a tough armor. Soderbergh said he cast a porn star precisely because she would deliver an “attitude” about sex-for-hire. What this actress can’t deliver, though, is much sense of what’s going on inside.

She gets closest to doing so in a scene with a new client, when she fumes over her bad Internet review. Given the none-too-subtle anti-media tone in “Girlfriend,” this might be something her director feels keenly, too, so this scene has more oomph than many of the others.

Since the scenes are improvised by nonprofessional actors, Soderbergh shoots with a loose frame. This does tend to put an audience somewhat at arm’s length from the action, which only increases the coolness of the film.

Soderbergh does not invite you to really enter the world of his character but rather to observe a character with a tight rein on her emotions. No one is going to crack this girl’s armor. Why she got into the business is vague: She mutters something about wanting her independence from family and men. Well, she sure has got it.

Red washes over many of the interior sequences, especially nightclubs or restaurants. A group of men on a plane to Vegas is deliberately garish in its colors. Still other scenes feel cool, almost neutral in tone. How Soderbergh aims to proceed with the color palette is anybody’s guess.

Soderbergh made the film for producers Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Prods. and HDNet Films. It will be released this year by Magnolia Pictures, presumably with the same simultaneous pattern as they used with “Bubble.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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