Steven Soderbergh's new film is a string of conversations usually given to us out of sequence, and this trick of storytelling is probably the best thing the movie has going for itself. This is a bummer, because I root for Soderbergh to succeed with everything he does, but "The Girlfriend Experience" feels mostly like a formal exercise with only spurts of humor and personality.
Soderbergh shot the film on the RED cam, with apparently no artificial lighting, and while watching the conversations come and go, delivered flatly by non-traditional actors, I started to think that the only reason the movie was made was to experiment with a super-high definition camera. Every pan feels like it answers the question, "How would it look if the RED cam panned?" It is lit with natural light to give the story a certain texture, but also to see how the RED cam would hold up without lights. And, unfortunately, the out-of-order editing is just another layer of formal tools to prop up an empty story.
The actors are Christine, played by porn star Sasha Grey, and her boyfriend Chris. She is more than just an escort -- she gives you the titular experience -- and he is a personal trainer. Peppered around them are Chris's buddies from the gym, and Christine's Johns. Soderbergh lets you know what he's going for from the very first conversation: Christine and John #1 just saw a movie, and they talk about its documentary / movie feel, somewhere in between two genres. Soderbergh's been kind of moving in this direction for a while, between "K Street," "Bubble" and now "Girlfriend," but this current venture seems much less content-driven. If it were given to us in sequence, it would be an interminable 78 minutes.
I know it is unfair, but I can't help but be doubly disappointed every time I don't like a Soderbergh movie. He's managed to allow himself a great amount of creative freedom -- he essentially produces big blockbusters like the Ocean's movies, and then does whatever he wants the rest of the time. Some for them, some for me, as it were. Yet the movies in the "for me" column seem to be moving more and more toward cold and formal exercises, and both columns have been pretty hit and miss for the last five or so years.
I'll always watch his films, and I'll always hope that he makes great art in all formats and budgets. I also have the possibly unreasonable expectation that the American autuer can make films for personal fulfillment that still reach a wide audience. Perhaps I've placed this burden solely on the shoulders of one of my favorite auteurs, but every time I watch his next film, I can't help but hope that this will be the one.