Saturday, May 30, 2009
Exhibitions of Modesty: The Girlfriend Experience
Before he played Hawkeye in Last Of The Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis reportedly spent several months living in the wilderness. Before he portrayed Gerry Conlon for In The Name Of The Father, Day-Lewis endured solitary confinement. Before he played Danny Flynn in The Boxer, Day-Lewis laced up the gloves and trained in the ring for 18 months. And before he starred in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis spent a year consuming nothing but milkshakes. Okay, so the last one isn’t true. But would it surprise you to learn that it was? Day-Lewis’ experiments in Method acting are both legendary and notorious, the kind of stuff that makes one want to applaud uproariously and then recommend that the actor spend some time in a padded cell. Yet if you’ve ever found Day-Lewis’ Method methods a bit extreme, just wait until you hear about Sasha Grey. All she did to prepare to play a high-end prostitute in The Girlfriend Experience was star in more than 150 porn films.
Okay, so that’s not quite true either. I mean, yes, Grey has “gone all the way” on camera – in fact, from what I can tell, she’s gone all the way in multiple ways simultaneously. But Grey’s porn career launched her mainstream Hollywood career, not the other way around. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh cast Grey for this picture precisely because of her sex industry background, not in spite of it. And if that makes you suspect that The Girlfriend Experience is full of nudity, (simulated) sex and flirting with the pool/pizza/cable guy, you’re on the wrong track. Sorry boys and girls: Grey gets naked only once in Soderbergh’s film, and it’s brief and dimly lit. If you’re looking for tits and ass on the big screen, find a recent Marisa Tomei movie. If you’re obsessed with genitalia, rent something by Judd Apatow. Grey isn’t in this picture because she’s comfortable with her body. She’s in this picture because she’s comfortable with her body of work.
If you believe in the Method process even a little, Grey’s casting is inspired. It only makes sense that the 21-year-old would have an intimate knowledge of what it would mean to be Chelsea, the escort at the center of Soderbergh’s film, who provides “girlfriend experiences” for her johns – going on dates, listening to their babble, laughing at their jokes and, yeah, sometimes having sex – for quite a bit of money. It only makes sense that Grey would understand what it’s like to be both worshiped and ignored, and what it takes to fake it and how protective walls can become prisons. If Day-Lewis’ stunts inform his performances, then certainly Grey’s professional background makes her an apt choice for this role. Regardless, it works. Grey’s Chelsea exudes confidence in the call of duty, where she is in control, and wariness elsewhere. She is effortlessly enticing, with a sharp Keira Knightley jaw, bold angular eyebrows that suggest constant curiosity and supple undulating lips that could teach Mona Lisa a thing or two about ambiguous expressions. To look at Chelsea is to see someone quite comfortable with who she is – just like a restaurant hostess, carpenter or doctor would be – even if her lifestyle is incomprehensible to most of us.
Also, there’s the fact that Grey is a porn star. Knowledge of that detail allows the experience of Soderbergh’s film to transcend its actual drama. As we watch Chelsea, trying to determine which moments are professional fabrications and which ones reveal the personality of the real woman within, Soderbergh hypnotically tempts us to ask the same questions about Grey. If Grey’s pedigree suggests that she has to do little more than show up and play herself in order to portray Chelsea, the illusion is that some of the real Grey is shining through here. If so, that makes this glimpse of an adult film star arguably more intimate than any pornographic one. In any case, it’s certainly more interesting to ponder whether Grey is speaking from the heart when Chelsea says, “If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn’t pay you,” than it is to watch a porn film and speculate about how often (if ever) an orgasmic actress is truly moaning from the genitals.
Why does all this meta deliberating add to The Girlfriend Experience rather than distracting from it? Because the film itself is about our efforts to create reality from perception. Chelsea creates illusions of nondiscriminatory companionship and high-class elegance. Her boyfriend (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who refuses to wear his gym’s uniform, creates an illusion of non-conforming hipness. A slimy prostitution critic (played by film critic Glenn Kenny) creates an illusion that his evaluations are as trustworthy as Consumer Reports. Meanwhile, in a film set in 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain create the illusion that they know best how to bring about positive change in America. In turn, the American citizen, as exemplified by Chelsea’s johns, struggles to create the illusion that he/she is somehow special – special to Chelsea, or special enough to know which candidate will save us, or special enough to know how to navigate the economic crisis.
These themes aren’t in boldface. Nothing in The Girlfriend Experience is. This movie, like Bubble before it, is a minimalist Soderbergh experiment sent straight to DVD and subscription TV in time with its theatrical release. Cuts and camera movements are few. Lighting is natural – or suggestive of it. And theatrics are nowhere to be found. Cinema often serves up stories about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations, but this isn’t one of them. None of these characters experiences anything resembling a defining moment, at least not in the short-term view. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Soderbergh’s film begins ominously, with about 10 minutes of clumsily-staged scenes, yet thereafter it continually draws us in toward its modest but legitimate emotional core. To call this film, or Grey’s performance within it, mostly inert wouldn’t be entirely unfair, but there is vigor to be found in the stillness. Other than during the repeatedly obnoxious scenes set on a private jet, which feature a group of overgrown frat boys captured by a hand-held camera in jiggling closeups awash in ambient light, I never wanted this film to “get on with it,” which is more than I can say for the energetic films in which Grey usually appears.
I know what you’re thinking: out-doing a porn film is hardly high praise for an Oscar-winning director. No argument there. Indeed, just like it’s impossible to forget Grey’s pedigree, it’s difficult to ignore Soderbergh’s. To recall a line from Dangerous Liaisons, one doesn’t applaud the tenor for clearing his throat. That said, for all its reserve, The Girlfriend Experience makes a more profound emotional impact at 78 minutes than Soderbergh’s 257-minute, two-part Che epic, which features heart-pounding cinematography (the camera is always in the right place) but only a faint emotional pulse. Is that still merely a backhanded compliment? Maybe. But to spend too much time analyzing this movie against Soderbergh’s capabilities is to overlook the movie itself. Yes, like Day-Lewis in the wilderness, Soderbergh seems to be testing himself, playing with his craft. In this case, at least we get to watch, even if it’s from a distance.