The Therapist Experience: The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience movie poster


Steven Soderbergh’s The Girl­friend Expe­ri­ence is a low-fi, par­tially impro­vised pro­duc­tion loosely asso­ci­ated with his peri­odic palate-cleansing exper­i­ments includ­ing Schizopo­lis, Full Frontal, K Street, and Bub­ble. Work­ing with real loca­tions and rel­a­tively cheap cam­eras, this class of thrifty pro­duc­tions allows Soder­bergh a rapid turn­around from con­cep­tion to fin­ished prod­uct. In the case of Schizopo­lis, the lower price tag allot­ted a cer­tain amount of cre­ative free­dom for uncom­fort­able auto­bi­og­ra­phy. But Soder­bergh is also able to bring time­lier sub­ject mat­ter to the­aters more quickly than most fea­ture films can man­age, delayed as they are by the mon­u­men­tal amount of fund­ing and team effort it takes to make and mar­ket one. Even the music is eco­nom­i­cal — most of it diegetic, per­formed onscreen by street buskers, but also incor­po­rat­ing a cool score by Ross Godfrey.

The Great Reces­sion and Bush’s Octo­ber 2008 bank bailout hang over every­thing. Soder­bergh beat other films fea­tur­ing char­ac­ters beset by unem­ploy­ment and poverty, includ­ing Wendy & Lucy, Frozen River, and espe­cially Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. The sex trade is just a tit­il­lat­ing hook for the greater theme of com­merce itself, and the way free­lance indi­vid­u­als mar­ket them­selves in order to make a liv­ing. The high-class escort Chris­tine (Sasha Grey) is noth­ing more than a small busi­ness owner, a hooker Joe the Plumber.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend ExperienceHigh-class escort Chris­tine (Sasha Grey) is a hooker Joe the Plumber

Ter­mi­nol­ogy is very impor­tant. “Call girl” is allowed, but “pros­ti­tute” is most cer­tainly never used. The phrase “the girl­friend expe­ri­ence” is pro­fes­sional lingo used by call girls to describe ser­vice that goes beyond mere sex. The movie depicts very lit­tle nudity or sex, and we’re thank­fully spared a humil­i­at­ing expe­ri­ence in which she trades sex for a pos­i­tive online review from a scum­bag (Glenn Kenny) who has granted him­self the power to destroy or boost escorts’ careers.

The film opens with an image of a mod­ern work of art hang­ing on a gallery wall, com­prised largely of dull, flat­tened, reflec­tive metal — just like Chris­tine her­self. Whether Grey’s blank per­for­mance is delib­er­ate choice or an expres­sion of her lim­ited act­ing abil­i­ties, it fits the char­ac­ter. While Chris­tine is a savvy busi­ness­woman con­cerned with self-promotion and max­i­miz­ing her income, her busi­ness is entirely in the ful­fill­ment of oth­ers’ wishes, up to a point, for a fee. She has goals and desires, but tellingly, Chris­tine defers even her din­ner orders to men. The only thing that seems to arouse her is Per­son­ol­ogy, a Scientology-esque vari­a­tion of new age hokum astrol­ogy that she uses to guide both per­sonal and pro­fes­sional deci­sions. It seems a big­ger haz­ard to her hap­pi­ness and suc­cess than her profession.

The eco­nomic cli­mate may be bad, but Chris­tine and her boyfriend live in a swanky apart­ment adorned with their art col­lec­tion. Her clients are mostly financiers, liv­ing luxe lifestyles but made anx­ious by the finan­cial calamity to the point of impo­tence. They vent their panic to her while she patiently lis­tens and asks soft­ball ques­tions. She always makes a point to ask her clients how their wives and chil­dren are doing; not to shame them, but out of a kind of polite deco­rum that some­how val­i­dates what they are doing with her. She has vari­a­tions of the same staid con­ver­sa­tion with her own boyfriend: “It’s good to see you too. How was your day?” Some­times her clients are so worked up they don’t even want sex, just some­one to lis­ten. So what she pro­vides might some­times be bet­ter described as The Ther­a­pist Expe­ri­ence. In the unex­pect­edly touch­ing final scene, she meets a favorite client in less glam­orous cir­cum­stances than we’ve seen before, and ful­fills his needs with a ten­der­ness she hasn’t pre­vi­ously demon­strated, even for her own lover.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend ExperienceChris­tine (Sasha Grey) pro­vides The Ther­a­pist Expe­ri­ence… for a price

The story is told through mul­ti­ple lay­ers of nar­ra­tion. Chris­tine keeps a func­tion­ally dry jour­nal of her appoint­ments, keep­ing track of her var­i­ous ersatz rela­tion­ships, the brands of cloth­ing she wore (down to the lin­gerie), where they dined, what movie they saw, whether or not they had sex. In a sec­ond layer of nar­ra­tion, a jour­nal­ist inter­views her for an piece he’s writ­ing on call girls. He finds her inter­est­ing in that she’s the only escort he has met that is in a seri­ous rela­tion­ship. The issue is raised as if it were the key ques­tion of the movie, but the theme falls by the way­side to make way for exam­i­na­tions of the ways that peo­ple sell them­selves in a dif­fi­cult eco­nomic climate.

Her boyfriend Chris (Chris San­tos) is a phys­i­cal trainer, another pro­fes­sion that val­ues youth and physique. While Chris­tine tries to expand her escort busi­ness by com­mis­sion­ing a web­site, and solic­it­ing reviews on seedy inter­net mes­sage boards. All the while she hopes to remain anony­mous so she can even­tu­ally finance and launch a legit­i­mate bou­tique. Mean­while, her boyfriend is simul­ta­ne­ously try­ing to expand his own busi­ness. Like Chris­tine, he is his own boss while work­ing in an estab­lished sys­tem that resists free agents. His most suc­cess­ful tac­tic to upgrade his clients into longer, more lucra­tive com­mit­ments is to insin­cerely cast their work together as a rela­tion­ship, a bit of psy­cho­log­i­cal manip­u­la­tion he per­haps learned from his girlfriend.

Like Soderbergh’s Bub­ble and K Street, some of the cast are non-actors. But Grey is one step removed from an ama­teur, being in fact a pro­fes­sional porn star. She is likely one of the few to ever fall up, as it were, from pornog­ra­phy to a legit­i­mate film career. She doesn’t seem to have extra­or­di­nary act­ing skills (which is good, for her char­ac­ter is dis­tant and chilly by design), nor does she have an espe­cially expres­sive face or voice. But she is remark­ably pretty, petite, and blessed with a lovely fig­ure seem­ingly unmo­lested by sil­i­cone. But why look to the world of porn to cast a pros­ti­tute? To put it bluntly, it’s ille­gal in most states for one per­son to get paid to pro­vide sex, but it is legal to get paid to have sex on cam­era. Did Soder­bergh imag­ine a real porn star would have spe­cial insight into the char­ac­ter of a pros­ti­tute? Per­haps he saw par­al­lels in Grey mar­kets her­self as a brand in the adult enter­tain­ment world.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the Blu-ray or DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Solaris (2002)

Solaris 2002 movie poster


As a huge title card reads imme­di­ately at the end of the film, Solaris was “writ­ten for the screen and directed by Steven Soder­bergh.” This Dork Reporter is a huge admirer, but that seemed a bit ego­tis­ti­cal even to me. Per­haps an over­en­thu­si­as­tic end-credits designer is to blame? Or maybe the stu­dio wanted to cap­ture some more of that lucra­tive Ocean’s Eleven magic by play­ing up the Soderbergh/Clooney brand?

But writ­ing and direct­ing cred­its, how­ever many feet tall, barely begin to describe Soderbergh’s role. For this and many of his other films, he serves as his own Direc­tor of Pho­tog­ra­phy (and even phys­i­cal cam­era oper­a­tor) under the pseu­do­nym Peter Andrews and also as edi­tor under the name Mary Ann Bernard. So, obvi­ously, Soder­bergh is one of the few main­stream film­mak­ers with the lux­ury of near-total con­trol over his films. Like Kubrick, he pro­duces, writes, directs, oper­ates the cam­era, and edits. But while Kubrick was a con­trol freak (in the best sense), the mod­est Soder­bergh is lauded as being more col­lab­o­ra­tive and espe­cially as a sen­si­tive direc­tor of actors.

George Clooney in SolarisPag­ing Dr. Ross, to the O.R., stat!

The DVD edi­tion includes an excel­lent com­men­tary track of Soder­bergh in con­ver­sa­tion with co-producer James Cameron, the orig­i­nal direc­tor attached to the project. Soder­bergh asks Cameron what he thought of how he approached the mate­r­ial. Cameron points out that Soder­bergh took a more “inter­nal” approach than he would have, and both agree in good humor that Cameron would have included more car chases. More than Soderbergh’s grand total of zero, anyway.

Depend­ing on how you count, Soder­bergh has only directed two remakes: Ocean’s Eleven and Solaris (The Limey was a kind of homage or mash-up remix of the Eng­lish crime clas­sics Point Blank and Get Carter). The source mate­r­ial of the Pol­ish novel Solaris by Stanis­law Lem has proven a rich mine for cin­ema. Russ­ian film­maker Andrei Tarkovsky directed the orig­i­nal adap­ta­tion in 1972 (read The Dork Report review) as the Eurasian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (read The Dork Report review). The basic con­cept also drove films as diverse as Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Hori­zon (which is hor­ri­ble but has uncom­monly spec­tac­u­lar spe­cial effects and art direc­tion) and Danny Boyle’s Sun­shine. Soderbergh’s ver­sion of Solaris is cred­ited as being based more on the orig­i­nal novel the 1972 film, with barely a men­tion of Tarkovsky even in the DVD com­men­tary track. In his essay for the 2002 Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion edi­tion of the orig­i­nal Solaris, Phillip Lopate states that Lem was unhappy with Tarkovsky’s inter­pre­ta­tion, and was look­ing for­ward to what he expected to be a more faith­ful trans­la­tion by Soderbergh.

Natascha McElhone in SolarisNatascha McEl­hone doesn’t like the looks of this tan­ning booth

Solaris is set at an unspec­i­fied point in the future, dis­tant enough for human­ity to have per­fected the tech­nol­ogy to leave the solar sys­tem. Kelvin (George Clooney) is a shrink who is him­self deeply emo­tion­ally dam­aged. Indeed, the theme of both this and the orig­i­nal film could be summed up as “physi­cian heal thy­self.” We first see him host­ing a group ther­apy ses­sion for sur­vivors of an unspec­i­fied tragedy. Since the movie was released in 2002, it’s pos­si­ble this was intended as an anal­ogy to a 9/11-like event. But judg­ing by how every scene set on Earth is drenched in dark­ness and per­sis­tent rain, per­haps there was some kind of eco­log­i­cal catastrophe.

Sin­gle and with no fam­ily, Kelvin is an ideal can­di­date for a solo trip to inves­ti­gate mys­te­ri­ous goings-on in a space sta­tion orbit­ing the dis­tant gas giant Solaris (pay atten­tion for the brief cameo by John Cho as a gov­ern­men­tal emis­sary). Unlike Tarkovski’s extremely leisurely pace, this ver­sion wastes no time; Kelvin’s boots are on the space sta­tion less than 10 min­utes into the film. This is the point where any read­ers wary of spoil­ers ought to stop reading.

Kelvin encoun­ters Snow (Jeremy Davies, supremely well-cast), a man under­stand­ably gone stir-crazy from being cooped up on a haunted space sta­tion. But it becomes clear that he him­self may be one of the forces doing the haunt­ing. Evi­dently, the planet Solaris some­how draws upon the strongest emo­tional res­o­nances in vis­i­tors’ brains and man­i­fests them as liv­ing beings. These incar­na­tions are most decid­edly not a bless­ing for any­one. For Clooney, it’s an echo of his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McEl­hone); for the cap­tain Gibar­ian (Ulrich Tukur), it’s a copy of the son he left behind on earth; for Snow, it’s… another ver­sion of him­self. The “Snow” that Clooney meets is, in effect, his own ghost; he killed his own cre­ator within sec­onds of his birth. The faux Snow’s weird behav­ior is not that of a man gone mad but of a not totally fully-formed human bluff­ing his way through unfa­mil­iar human inter­ac­tion. One has to won­der what kind of man is so alone or self-obsessed that the most impor­tant per­son encoded in his emo­tional mem­o­ries is himself.

Natascha McElhone and George Clooney in SolarisThe Solaris crew rehearses its big tech­nob­a­b­ble scene

Kelvin and Rheya orig­i­nally bonded over the Dylan Thomas verse “and death shall have no domin­ion,” but the emo­tion­ally frag­ile woman com­mit­ted sui­cide after he left her. Tor­tured by the renewed pres­ence of her in his life, and the per­plex­ing puz­zle of Snow’s dop­pel­gänger, he begins to ques­tion his own exis­tence: is he some­one else’s ghost? But he doesn’t take the ques­tion to the next log­i­cal step: is there any­one in the world with enough emo­tional invest­ment in him to cause him to haunt them?

Solaris is both Soder­bergh and Clooney’s first and only sci­ence fic­tion. It was mar­keted with a mis­lead­ing poster sug­gest­ing a romance while obscur­ing any hint of sci­ence fic­tion. It is admit­tedly kind of funny to see Clooney in a space­suit, espe­cially when he was rel­a­tively early in his career as a movie actor (after years in tele­vi­sion sit­coms and dra­mas). One can’t imag­ine Clooney’s Hol­ly­wood ances­tor Cary Grant appear­ing in a space opera. But Solaris tries to have it both ways: to be some­how above sci­ence fic­tion but still be over­loaded with enough pseudo-scientific tech­nob­a­b­ble to fill sev­eral Star Trek epics. The sen­si­tive, emo­tional tone of the film is shat­tered as soon as sci­en­tist Gor­don (Viola Davis) starts lec­tur­ing the audi­ence about pro­ton beams break­ing up fields of Higgs Par­ti­cles (or some­thing along those lines). Such tech­nob­a­b­ble cheap­ens the premise. Indeed, the talky screen­play makes every­thing too explicit and con­crete, espe­cially com­pared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which says so much more with so many fewer words.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.


Bubble movie poster


As a look into the lives of fac­tory work­ers in an eco­nom­i­cally depressed town turns into a noir (as Steven Soder­bergh him­self notes on the com­men­tary track), I caught a whiff of class anthro­pol­ogy. That said, I under­stand Soderbergh’s point that crit­ics’ charges of exploita­tion are con­de­scend­ing; the non-actors are intel­li­gent human beings who wholly knew what they were get­ting into.

With this project, Soder­bergh is tack­ling sev­eral unknowns at once: high-definition video, the fea­si­bil­ity of simul­ta­ne­ous release, and the sto­ry­telling device of draw­ing on the real-life expe­ri­ences of non-actors. How does one tell if an exper­i­ment is a suc­cess when there are so many variables?