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Sex, truth & call girls

Steven Soderbergh and Sasha Grey field questions at the Tribeca Film Festival screening of "The Girlfriend Experience" last month in New York.

by Roger Ebert

In the late months of 2008, while the economic storm was gathering, Steven Soderbergh made a film about buying and selling. "The Girlfriend Experience" follows a high-priced escort named Chelsea as she interacts with clients, many of them regulars, all of them wealthy. It stars Sasha Grey, 21, who in real life has made more than 150 porn films. This is her second film role that doesn't involve explicit hard-core sex.

The title refers to the abbreviation "GFE," shorthand in sex ads for escorts who offer something more than simple sex. They talk, they confide, they provide companionship -- they actually kiss, which is where most prostitutes draw the line. Sometimes no sex is involved, although it's permitted.

This is a film for the times we live in. The call girl and her clients are engaged in the same occupation: selling something they don't want in order to to buy things they do. The difference is that the prostitute is selling a tangible service, while the financial traders are dealing in abstractions. They all want to talk with Chelsea about her business. They offer financial advice as a way of feeling more important to her. They all think they have a special relationship. They arguably find the hours they spend with her more absorbing and valued than many hours they spend at work.

It was a coincidence that the economic crisis played such a big part in his story, Soderbergh told me via e-mail: "The outline was written in the spring of 2006, before anyone was talking seriously about a crisis (and also before the Eliot Spitzer story broke)." The shooting took 16 days in October 2008, "when everyone was worried about money."

He said he used actors playing characters like themselves: "Meaning the financial guys were financial guys, the Web guy was a Web guy, and so on. I'd give them a basic goal for the scene, like 'don't let him sell you a package of workout sessions,' and turn them loose. I'd say 95 percent of the film is made up of first or second takes. They were controlled improvisations where the actors were encouraged to speak freely about themselves and as themselves. Therefore, naturally, the meltdown turned out to be a constant topic of conversation. This is probably because most of the johns who see women like Chelsea are from the finance world. This was discovered through our interviews with real escorts."

I think Sasha Grey plays the role about as well as it can be played. It's always a balancing act, offering an illusion of intimacy while maintaining Chelsea's privacy. She may be a porn star, but so what? She owns the character, and it's hard to imagine anyone else playing it. That's what every director is looking for. But why a porn star in the first place?

"You're right, the role wouldn't seem to require an adult film star, but at the beginning, I didn't know how explicit the movie would be. Also, I wanted someone who would appear, in a sexual situation, to be completely in control and comfortable. I love the way she watches the jeweler disrobe in the last scene --she's totally calm and free of anxiety, almost zenlike. I didn't audition anyone else.

"In discussing the role, I tried to keep our conversations very practical; I don't want the performers thinking too much."

The film doesn't involve a conventional three-act story arc. It stays resolutely in Chelsea's present tense. Her life is a continuum, although sometimes something happens to break the pattern, as when her live-in boyfriend gets too curious about a client.

Although Soderbergh has made films closely tied to plots (the three "Ocean's" movies, "Erin Brockovich,"), he said he's getting "a bit tired of traditional setups and payoffs when it comes to storytelling in movies. That doesn't mean I think we should dispense with narrative, but I'm more interested in how something feels than how it's constructed. I think you learn more from what people do than from what they say, or feel, or say they feel. In this case, that meant staying focused on what Chelsea does day to day. It's easy to be brave about that when your budget is $1.6 million."

With "The Girlfriend Experience," he said, he deliberately avoided any kind of a background for Chelsea.

"She hints in the restaurant with her girlfriend that she left home because she didn't want to be dependent on her parents for money. Beyond that, I didn't really have a desire to go into her back story, because I knew people would be looking for 'reasons' why she became a call girl, and I didn't want her judged like that.

"Sasha Grey is very ambitious and wants to make her own films, so I would think she saw this as a learning experience. Although what she learned -- you'd have to ask her."

What do you hope she learned?

"You can get what you want without ever raising your voice."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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