‘The Girlfriend Experience’: Sex And The City, By Kurt Loder

Steven Soderbergh brings porn star Sasha Grey into the mainstream, where she may belong.

[movieperson id="1063176"]Sasha Grey[/movieperson] isn’t the first porn star to attempt a mainstream-movie crossover. Skin-flick vets like Marilyn Chambers, Traci Lords and Ginger Lynn have all given it a shot, with middling to mediocre results. (And does Pamela Anderson count?) But in Steven Soderbergh’s [movie id="389888"]“The Girlfriend Experience,”[/movie] the 21-year-old Grey — an art-film buff who drops names like Godard and Varda on her Web site — makes the most credible transition to date. Playing a high-end Manhattan escort named Chelsea is hardly a stretch for the star of “Sex Toy Teens” and “Strap Attack 6,” but her casting is more than a stunt. With her sleek demeanor and smoky gaze, Grey has real presence; and while the extent of her acting ability is anybody’s guess, she’s strikingly self-possessed, and she definitely pops onscreen.

Soderbergh shot the movie very quickly in New York last October, when the presidential election campaigns were at full heat and the economy was just beginning to fall apart. The picture is set in the world of self-absorbed urban professionals and their money — about which they’re all starting to get very worried. Chelsea’s clients are investment advisers, screenwriters, entrepreneurs of various sorts — not the sort of men who want to think of themselves as consorting with hookers. Instead, they call Chelsea, who runs her own one-woman escort service. Chelsea is smart and presentable; they can take her to art galleries and upscale restaurants. (“We had dinner at Blue Hill,” she confides to her laptop business diary.) They can talk to her about their wives and kids and other problems. She offers them not just a hookup, but a full-on girlfriend experience. True, they have to pay her — a lot. But then girlfriends are always expensive.

Like her customers, Chelsea is uneasy about her financial situation. She wants to upgrade her Web site to get better Google placement. She might open a boutique. Should she get into gold? She’s all about class and polish, but she inevitably has to interact with unsavory lowlifes. A pushy magazine writer (played by veteran New York journalist Mark Jacobson) keeps trying to plumb her personal depths for a profile. The proprietor of an Internet sex site called the Erotic Connoisseur (played with ebullient skeeziness by film critic Glenn Kenny) offers a rave review of her services in exchange for a free sample. Meanwhile, fresh new professional babes are popping up on the escort scene, and Chelsea begins to contemplate her sell-by date. She has a live-in relationship with a broad-minded hunk (Chris Santos), but he’s just a personal trainer, with his own financial insecurities. Then, unexpectedly, she starts clicking with a new client. Could this be real love, a soul-mate thing? Or is it just a boyfriend experience?

Along with directing the movie, Soderbergh shot and edited it, too, and he’s given the picture a gleaming, abstract beauty. The luxe interiors have a jewel-like glow, and the extensive manipulation of focus (lots of blurred foregrounds) enhances the offhand impressionism of the story. The surfaces are more eloquent than the oblique characters — we have to project ourselves into the film to get much out of it. But the movie conveys a rich sense of time (a past so recent it won’t let go) and place (the modern metropolitan money pit). And while Grey either can’t or hasn’t been directed to express Chelsea’s inner reality, she’s fascinating to watch. It may be only an actress experience she’s providing right now. But she’ll be back.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “Terminator Salvation” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” also opening this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Girlfriend Experience.”

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