do you really think she'll pull through? : the girlfriend experience

I know, I know, it's serious.

There's a scene towards the very end of Steven Soderbergh's latest, The Girlfriend Experience, where we watch a fey, Jewish jeweller nervously disrobe in the back office of his store, droning on about voting McCain and the chances for Israel's continued survival under a President Mac. Meanwhile, his companion, played by lissom porn actress Sasha Grey, strikes a tasteful pose in her tasteful off-white lingerie, a charitable look on her face. Eventually they embrace ("C'mere," whispers Grey, half-sexy, half-tender), but only their torsos and faces touch - not the lower part of their bodies - indeed, neither of them have even taken off their underwear. Holding Grey, the jeweller begins to breathe harder and harder, sighing and weeping, until he reaches orgasm, and she reaches up to stroke his hair.

The vulnerabilty Soderbergh showcases in this scene is what I'd really like to take away from the film: one that speaks directly and plainly to a notion the director manages to shape over the first half of The Girlfriend Experience only to dump for trite melodrama; that somewhere just beyond the shadow of desperation and grasping cast by significant but otherwise unspoken class divisions that loom over a big city like New York in late 2008 (and now), that there are sad and weird needs, sad and weird and basic needs people continue have, regardless of whether they're Wall Street douchebags, Saudi Princes, whiny screenwriters, hustling personal trainers, or call girls with a yen for something called "personology."

Casting Grey as the latter is Soderbergh doing his meta thing, through and through, so much so that it's hard not to see her reflecting on who she is outside of this brief stint in artsy stuff like this during a number of scenes with a probing and possibly infatuated journalist which are cross-cut with the rest of The Girlfriend Experience's goings on (ditto Soderbergh's process). She's a striking young woman, but when called on, can barely keep a scene together (though the same could be said for Scarlett Johannsen, frankly). That's not really the point though - she's a very young and somewhat notorious porn star doing a Steven Soderbergh flick about a very young high-class call girl with a vacuum in place of a personal life, so sign, meet signifier, etc., etc. Anyway, points for effort, I guess, and I have to imagine she knows the score here too, being a Herzog fan and all (at least that's what she says).

In the end, The Girlfriend Experienceis exactly what it says on the tin - curious, a little more than a little ephemeral, an experimental film cooked up in Steven Soderbergh's secret lab hidden inside the second 'L' on the Hollywood sign. And as is often the case with experimental film, this is more involved with an idea (the color and the shape of shared humanity in a substantially unequal place like 21st New York) or series of linked ideas rather than characters, though Soderbergh would've delievered a better and much more effective film overall if he hewed closer to the consistent clinicism and detachment he exhibited in his '06 stuff, like Bubble or The Good German instead of letting the piece droop into a sketch of Holly Golightly done in Joe Buck's chintzy colors.

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