Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience: The Enigma of Chelsea

The Girlfriend Experience, Stephen Soderbergh’s artsy, 78-minute experiment in minimalism, starts with brief establishing shots of some of the locations in which non-chronological vignettes later piece together a brief look into the world of Chelsea, also called Christine, a high-class female escort played by Sasha Grey. These non-linearly interspersed bits and pieces present an impression of Chelsea’s lifestyle which entails many meetings with many people: her clients, her web site manager, a former client turned friend, a current client with whom she feels an emotional connection, her financial advisor, her confidante, her boyfriend, a sleazy sex critic. These meetings blur in our memory as they must blur in Chelsea’s memory. In the end, we get no clear picture of who Chelsea is, no clear indication of what might happen in her future. Her routine continues, and she remains an enigma.

But the enigma of Chelsea is what fascinates me about this film. What do we know about her? She’s twenty-on. She wanted to “get away” from her family. She wants to be regarded as a sophisticated escort, and she feels threatened by the competition. Chelsea engages in a risky business that is realistically only a short-term career, so she plans for the future. She is shrewd about her investments and she consults “books” that calculate her compatibility with other people. On her laptop, she records descriptions of her “dates,” but these toneless passages catalogue what she had for dinner and what she wore as blandly as she catalogues details of the sex she performed. They reveal nothing about her character.

She’s attractive, not radiantly beautiful, but she provides a service that most men want: she listens, she sympathizes, she soothes. But in the same way her clients never know if they’re dealing with the real Chelsea, and some would rather enjoy the illusion, we as viewers are never sure who the real Chelsea is. Soderbergh only provides suggestions. When the camera catches a guarded expression not directed toward a client, we see Chelsea’s boredom and skepticism. Is she looking for a way out? Also, along with the shots of her acting suave and sophisticated, there are plenty of shots that capture her youthful innocence. Sometimes she looks no older than a high school student. Perhaps she knows this, and for this reason she tries to appear sophisticated. She is tasteful about the fashions she wears. She shows interest in artwork.

Chelsea’s youth is part of the sadness. She is a young woman enmeshed in a risky, sordid business. A sleazy pimp proposes that she join a group of hookers traveling to Dubai to pleasure wealthy Arabs, and Chelsea is smart enough to see it as dangerous proposition. For the most part she is tough and cool, but when she is hurt, we see a young, vulnerable, scared little girl. At times her lifestyle seems glamorous; with certain clients she seems to be enjoying herself. But her appointments with clients with unusual sexual habits leave us feeling sad for Chelsea. We want her to escape her world and find the happiness she seeks with one particular client, but Soderbergh never supplies his film with a pat conclusion. How much does she even want to escape her situation? Perhaps she likes what she does. Ironically, she provides a compassionate service that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. She provides the girlfriend experience.


Jason Bellamy said...

Nice analysis of the way this movie works! As you identify, the inability to define Chelsea -- probably reflecting her own inability -- is the 'point' of this film, presuming there is a 'point' of some sort.

Richard Bellamy said...

Right - thanks for the comment - there may be no point. After the epic of Che Soderbergh might have just needed to experiment - but I think it's a well-made experiment.

The Film Doctor said...

Nice post, but I would bet that Chelsea is hard to read because she's deliberately fashioned herself to play the fantasy role for various Johns, so her character would necessarily be opaque. I was mostly reminded of Ellis's novel American Psycho when watching this film. Everyone and everything is such high-end merchandise, the brand names have almost become more important than the characters. Also, Soderbergh's techniques are jarring at times. Why are Chelsea and her boyfriend out of focus for one long scene? Why is she obscured behind a chair in another? It is almost as if Soderbergh is so caught up in the surfaces of each scene, the technique begins to dominate the story.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment - yes, it does seem like some of the camerawork and lighting are slipshod. The bad lighting that bothered me the most is the scene on the jet. I guess you could argue meanings into the shots in which Chelsea is behind a chair or out of focus - but I have a feeling the film was a rush job.

Funny thing about film style these days. We're so used to images being out of focus or dark-lit or jerky and we accept that as the filmmaker's style. It's hard to tell when it's a mistake.

A sort of related anecdote: from Tony Scott we expect the jerky hand-held look, jump cuts, 360s (that's gotta go), and all sorts of stylistic elements I can't name. This accounted for a funny experience when I saw The Taking of Pelham. Okay - so here we go, Travolta hijacks the train, and the camerawork was shaky and all over the place - but some of it was very still and standard, but then I noticed that some of the frames were quivering up and done. I thought, what the hell, Tony, give me a frickin' break! But then some of the shots would be still. Funny thing is, with Tony Scott, it took me the whole film - during the credits - to figure out it was a problem with the projection.

Jason Bellamy said...

Though I hated the scenes on the plane, we should remember that it's being filmed on a personal camera by one of the guys. So it's their over-lit shot, not Soderbergh's, if you follow me. He's going for realism there, as annoying as it is. (The worst thing about those scenes, for me, is that they do nothing to advance or deepen the story. It's filler. Cut it in half and you wouldn't miss a thing.)

As for this ...

"Why is she obscured behind a chair in another? It is almost as if Soderbergh is so caught up in the surfaces of each scene, the technique begins to dominate the story."

Well, that's the knock against Soderbergh, for sure. I'm torn on the chair scene. When filmmakers do this, it often seems like a "look at me" stunt. Then again, when did we get the idea that we always need to be able to see the person talking in the shot?

I thought that instance worked, as the blocked view of Chelsea is a metaphor for her elusiveness. That's the scene where she mentions meeting someone, so in any other movie, it would be a close-up of her face, and we'd feel like we were finally seeing the true Chelsea. But Soderbergh prevents us from doing that.

Does the staging call attention to itself? Yes. But in that case, i thikn it works.

The Film Doctor said...

With an artist like Soderbergh, I like to give him the benefit of the doubt, and someday I plan on rewatching the film to see if I can make more sense of his techniques. His strategy of coming up with a film quickly on digital video does seem justified, especially now that we are stuck in a morass of summer films that do not in any way (or accidentally) fit the mood of the nation since the economy's drastic change and Obama's election. Given the way that blogs, twitter, and Facebook are beating out traditional news sources in the coverage of Iran, movies now also face the charge of instant obsolescence. In that respect, with its flaws, The Girlfriend Experience strikes me as contemporary and thought-provoking.

Richard Bellamy said...

I had little problem with the look of The Girlfriend Experience. The lighting began to bother me in the scene on the jet only because it went on so long. Other than that - the chair, the ill-lit scene with the boyfriend - what I saw never took away from the story. I found some of the elements of Tony Scott's flashy style much more irksome in The Taking of Pelham.

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr - Thanks for the additional comment. The immediate accessibility of this movie is interesting. There was no way I would be able to catch this movie on Cape Cod anytime soon. So I found it on Comcast On-Demand. I watched it - and taped it - and watched it again the next night. I had never done this before.

Although I am religiously fervent about the in-theater movie-viewing experience, I have to admit I felt a pump of adrenalin watching a newly released movie on demand. I wouldn't want this method of movie-viewing to totally take the place of theater-going, but because of the film's lack of availability near where I live, it was very exciting to be able to do this - and this little digital film fit right into the screen.

Things sure have changed since the pre-VCR days. I was shocked when I went to Best Buy and saw The International and Taken already on DVD. I guess that time lapse will get narrower and narrower until going to the movies is only ONE of the ways in which you can view a new release.