Shades of Grey 

Soderbergh delivers an art house touch

I'm never bored with Steven Soderbergh—not from movie to movie, anyway. Unkinder critics have called him a dilettante and bristle at his habit of innocently mentioning himself in the same breath as those of Tarkovsky and Howard Hawks. But can you think of another household-name director with his knack for slipping so effortlessly, and so stylishly, between the art house and the cineplex from one project to the next? Say what you will, the guy cranks out decent, diverse pictures at the genuinely Hawksian rate of roughly one per year.

click to enlarge Sasha Grey wears her sunglasses at night in The Girlfriend Experience.
  • Sasha Grey wears her sunglasses at night in The Girlfriend Experience.

Soderbergh claims in interviews that diversity was a career goal from the outset—not getting locked into any style or genre. Granted, that's exactly what you'd expect to hear from an established filmmaker reflecting on a mixed bag of early efforts like Kafka and King of the Hill, not to mention a live concert film of 90125-era Yes. But his ongoing career patchwork of big-budget and no-budget, star-studded and starless, easily digestible and borderline unwatchable does make him fairly unique among directors of his stature. If only more of them were contractually required to make $2 million features between their $200 million features.

True, there's a gimmicky side to Soderbergh at his most experimental. Much has been made of his decision to cast actress Sasha Grey in the lead role of his most recent feature, The Girlfriend Experience, about a pricey Manhattan call girl. Though barely of drinking age, Grey is a prolific porn star who can claim 165 triple-X videos in her three-year career—and now the lead role in a Steven Soderbergh movie. In Grey's filmography, The Girlfriend Experience rests uneasily atop a writhing flesh-pile of, erm, entries like Hairy Movie and Apprentass 10, to name just two of the more cleverly titled.

Most of Grey's titles—like the movies themselves, presumably—leave nothing to the imagination; the scope of activity described in them makes it just possible, without having seen any of them, to countenance one critic's observation that Grey's career has heretofore been "distinguished both by the extremity of what she is willing to do and an unusual degree of intellectual seriousness about doing it." I learned about Grey's porn history only accidentally, in conversation, before seeing the movie; viewers more familiar with her oeuvre have pointed out in various online forums that some certain thespian trademarks have survived the leap to the big screen intact, notably an unchanging look in her eyes, described by even her keenest fans as "dead" and "lifeless."

One struggles to picture this placidity in Anal Cavity Search 6, but in The Girlfriend Experience it's just the ticket. Grey's acting is flat and utterly without affect throughout the movie, which incidentally has no sex at all. As mentioned, the actress plays a high-end prostitute who, for $2,000 an hour, provides optional sex with the kind of trimmings prostitutes don't ordinarily go in for: kissing, discussions of the current cinema, long leisurely breakfasts the next morning. She sells the "girlfriend experience," in other words, as opposed to the prostitute experience.

Her actual boyfriend of 18 months is a freelance personal trainer, every bit a prostitute in his own fashion, and a much more assertive solicitor besides—one of these shifty, smooth-talking weasels in whose conversational strategies you positively loathe to hear any trace of your own. Yet he's the worse for every gamble. There's a lot of nervous kidding about recession-proof businesses in The Girlfriend Experience, and it must be said that between personal trainers and prostitutes, the latter seem to be faring rather better.

There are only a handful of dramatic developments in the movie. None of them force the slightest changing of Grey's acting gears, and for much of the movie even those famously lifeless eyes are hidden behind sunglasses. The Girlfriend Experience is less a plotted story than a series of encounters—transactions is the better word—mostly between Grey's character and men who want things from her. Some guys want to get down, others just want to complain about their stock portfolios (The Girlfriend Experience is radioactively 2008 in its tanking-economy, pre-election jitters) or discuss Man on Wire.

They all pay the same rate, and Grey's call girl maintains her cool distance from johns, journos and lecherous bloggers throughout. She's like a Godard girl. The Girlfriend Experience, in fact, has many trappings of a Godard movie—the shrugging nonchalance, the bleeding-fresh politics, the non-acting—and bears a strong resemblance to Vivre sa Vie, the old lefty's 1962 film en douze tableaux about a Parisian woman's descent into prostitution. (Is it always a descent? Would we describe Grey's foray into pornography a descent when after just three years she has established herself as a rich and savvy businesswoman who now runs her own production company?)

If Grey returned to strictly adult fare, or better yet retired altogether, her performance in The Girlfriend Experience would be legendarily enigmatic. As it stands, it's just intriguing—is she just that good at playing flat and affectless, or is she really that flat and affectless? Even as Soderbergh publicly discusses his retirement (running out of ideas, he says), Grey will be clearly sticking around—in the cineplex or the art house or the grindhouse, it remains to be seen. The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'enest fa",,"")>

The Girlfriend Experience opens at the Wilma Theatre Friday, June 26.

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