The Girlfriend Experience (2009) is the perfect marriage of a director and a subject. Steven Soderbergh and Sasha Grey are incredibly prolific artists, who are both innovators in their respective professions.
Sasha Grey entered into the porn industry in 2006 at the age of 18. In a short amount of time, she quickly distinguished herself as more than a pornographic actress. In establishing herself as a businesswoman, her concern became empowering females. In her work, she has been an advocate for female sexual empowerment. Sasha Grey has appeared in over 300 pornographic films. In addition to these films in which she appears as an actress, she has maintained a career in modeling, writing and directing. The Girlfriend Experience was her first theatrical feature film and was released when she was 21 years old.
Steven Soderbergh entered into the film industry in 1989 at the age of 26. The filmmaker’s breakthrough film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) contributed to the independent film revolution after he became the youngest filmmaker that won a Palme d’Or at the Festival de Cannes. Steven Soderbergh has been the face of independent filmmaking, despite seamlessly shifting from independent and mainstream films. In his career, he has continuously been at the forefront of technology, becoming one of the first filmmakers that made the switch into digital. In addition to the role he assumes as filmmaker, he also acts as cinematographer and editor on most of his projects. In the six years since has adopted digital filmmaking, he has worked rapidly and has released eight feature length films. In other words, both artists have maintained extremely prolific careers, working in numerous parts of their respective industries.
The Girlfriend Experience can be seen as an exercise for both artists; coming off his final film for the Ocean’s franchise as well as his ambitious two-part Che (2008) film, which runs over four hours, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is a small-scale low-budget film that runs a cool 77 minutes. The film, which had a budget of less than $2 million, consisted of a cast of non-professional actors and a crew of a dozen. In working with RED cameras and a production that filmed for a mere sixteen days in actual locations, Steven Soderbergh once again employed a rather quick workflow.
In our research, we discovered that the apartment that Chelsea (Sasha Grey) lives in is located on 34 East 30th Street in Manhattan. The building, which is a nine-story pre-war loft building, was constructed in 1921 and consists of eight full floor loft units with one apartment per floor. The building also has one passenger elevator and one freight elevator (which may have been used for the transportation of equipment) that open into each loft. The floor plan provided is the actual floor plan of Chelsea’s apartment space. Chelsea’s apartment is one of the upper levels of the building and the unit takes up the entire floor.
The scene that we focused on is the heated discussion that Chelsea and Chris (Chris Santos) have in their living room, where Chelsea notes that she is going away for the weekend with a client. The scene, which runs a little over five minutes, is photographed as one continuous take. The scene begins on the elevator as Chelsea walks in. The camera follows her and pans to the left of the living room, where she sits and speaks with Chris. The camera in this scene photographs the action from a distance, remaining fixed on its subjects, until a crucial line. Chelsea asks Chris if he is still planning on going away with his friends for the weekend; when he says no, with the reason being that she couldn’t come along with them, Chelsea notes that he should. Chelsea then admits, “I met somebody today.”
It’s at this point that the camera slowly pushes in on the characters. In terms of blocking, as soon as the push in begins, Sasha Grey sits down lower on the floor as a couch obstructs our view of her face. The push-in then reveals more of her. The instance that the push-in begins is the moment that turns their discussion into an argument. This is when their relationship begins to disintegrate; as a result, the audience doesn’t feel the camera movement because of the intensity of their argument. In this instance, the director moves in on his subject and employs a film technique that feels entirely motivated.