76 minutes

You would be hard-pressed to find another director so unwilling the toe the Hollywood party line and keep experimenting and developing himself as a filmmaker while still dipping his toes in the studio pool every now and then as Steven Soderbergh. Chronologically, The Girlfriend Experience was shot and released in between Che, the two-part conceptual biopic of Che Guevara, and the major studio comedy The Informant!, and is the second of six low-budget pictures financed by Mark Cuban's Magnolia Pictures for simultaneous theatrical, VOD and DVD release (the first was the fascinatingly underrated Bubble). As Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience was shot with non-professionals in loosely structured improvisations around a script by screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman, regular collaborators of the director.

     Much has been made of it being toplined by porn film star Sasha Grey as New York escort Chelsea, but if you are expecting titillation of any sort you might want to stear clear of what is a funhouse meditation on consumer society with little or no skin shots. Juxtaposing Chelsea's daily grind to her live-in boyfriend Chris's (Chris Santos) work as a personal trainer hustling to find a better position during the early days of the 2008 Wall Street bust, mr. Soderbergh deconstructs the story into a stylishly fragmented, disjointed time structure. It soon becomes clear he is using Chelsea and Chris' situation as exemplary of a society where everything is a commodity, ready to be exchanged according to value or need, and genuine affection is hard to come by – something alluded to at regular intervals in the film.

     It's becoming clear mr. Soderbergh no longer truly differentiates between “studio” and “indie” films, applying the same inventiveness to what are essentially formal exercises in blowing genres apart and reconstructing them according to different viewpoints. The Girlfriend Experience is essentially a variation on the classic Hollywood staple of the relationship drama broken in shards and reassembled as a puzzle film about the modern world – and it's, ironically, more of a “studio picture” than the delirious subversion of The Informant! or the film noir experiments of The Good German, as well as one of the most intriguing efforts he has released in a while.

Starring Sasha Grey, Chris Santos.
     Director, director of photography (as Peter Andrews; colour by Technicolor, Panavision widescreen) and film editor (as Mary Ann Bernard), Steven Soderbergh; produced by Gregory Jacobs; written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman; music by Ross Godfrey; art director, Carlos Moore; costume designer, Christopher Peterson. 
     A Magnolia Pictures presentation, in association with 2929 Productions, of an Extension 765 production. (US distributor and world sales, Magnolia Pictures.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo screening room, Lisbon, July 5th 2011.


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