We all know by now that the career of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh breaks into two separate parts: greatly accomplished studio fare that is extremely entertaining, awards-friendly, or both; and the... other ones. Say whatever you like about the other ones, but it is an undeniable fact that they are not thoughtless things - it may in fact be the case that they're too thoughtful for their own good, so conceptually laden that sometimes the filmmaker can be accused of forgetting to put a movie in amongst all of the experimentation. I'm not the one who's going to argue that, mind you. No sir, I am as slavering a Soderbergh fanboy as can be, which I say only so that you know the proper frame for what follows.

See, The Girlfriend Experience is quite unmistakably one of Soderbergh's experiments - he directed, shot (as usual, under the name "Peter Andrews") and edited (under the name "Mary Ann Bernard", also as usual) the thing, so auteurist arguments have more weight here than usual - and by my accounting, a successful one it is too, just as successful in fact as 2002's Full Frontal, though for different reasons entirely (that's another part of the frame I was referring to: yes, I am one of the half-dozen people in the world who would call Full Frontal "successful". I also loved Ocean's Twelve, so I'm just a sociopath all 'round); it is a sort of hodge-pdoge of ideas that the director has noodled around with throughout the last ten years. It is made after the model of Bubble in 2005: shot digitally (GFE on a much higher-quality camera) in a very short period with non-professional actors, quickly finished and released in theaters, on the HDNet cable channel and as a digital download all in the same span. Plot- and production-wise, it's closest to his deeply under-appreciated HBO series K Street from 2003: a mostly-improvised story and screenplay based on the most important issues at the moment of its creation - here, October 2008 - rushed to completion so that when the audience first sees it, those issues are still living. Cinematically, that is, the structure of the thing, how it was put together, how it "feels" as you're watching, the most obvious precursor is The Limey, which like GFE presents a reasonably simple story in a chronological patchwork of events taken all out of order and overlapping with one another, anchored around a single repeating moment whose exact point in the timeline isn't established until the end.

The film's matter is commodification in a time of economic implosion. Commodification of what? Obviously, the human body - the main character is a high-class prostitute and her boyfriend is a personal trainer - but the film's argument seems to be more about commodification per se, and the human body is only the vehicle for the argument, so to speak. But let us return to that. For now, the prostitute heroine of the piece is a young woman named, perhaps, Chelsea, played by Sasha Grey. Over the course of 77 minutes we learn, but not necessarily in this order, that Chelsea is trying to increase her web presence to make sure that prospective clients can find her quickly and easily - a sort of safeguard against the onrushing economic meltdown that seemed, in October of 2008, to be just inches around the corner (and hey! it still does!); that she is giving serious thought to speaking with the proprietor of a site called the Erotic Connoisseur, an escort critic with major influence over the New York escort scene; that she is living with her boyfriend of 18 months, Chris (Chris Santos), who is perfectly aware of her job, though he is okay with it to an uncertain degree.

Sasha Grey is the film's only professional actor, sort of: since turning 18 in 2006, she has starred in a very large number of hardcore pornographic videos - 159 according to the IMDb, although I don't know if the IMDb is quite the porn authority - and it is not insulting to her or the movie she currently appears in that she's exactly a good enough actress to appear in hardcore porn. This is a fact that crops up in every single write-up of The Girlfriend Experience, as it must: not because critics are porno freaks, but because Grey's celebrity is based on the commodification of the human body. Soderbergh didn't cast her because he wanted someone who'd be comfortable in all sorts of humiliating sex scenes (there's no sex, and only vanishing nudity, anywhere in the film), but because he expected the audience to find this fact out before hand and carry that baggage in with us.

That said, the casting of Grey has an important secondary function: since she can't act, and Santos is arguably even worse, they present us with inhumanly flat leads (to call them protagonists is a bit of a stretch). This seems deliberate; at any rate, like in a Kubrick or Bresson or Von Trier film, the flatness of the acting serves the movie well. Grey's unconvincing performance essentially strips Chelsea of anything human at all, leaving us with only a sort of object - not an object in the feminist sense, where Chelsea as sexual being is turned into an object of male control and passion, since none of the men in the film and Chris least of all seem to be effectual in any degree. Rather that she becomes an object of money acquisition and consumption, a figure that has been consciously designed by whatever is left of the personality she came to New York with to appeal to men so that they will give her extremely large sums of cash for physical gratification. If we're going to apply any theoretical framework to this, it would necessarily be a Marxist frame, and I find it odd and kind of hilarious that after the 4.5-hour Che failed to be about politics really at all, Soderbergh's very next film turned out to be just about the most left-wing thing he's ever made.

For the film is about wanting money and the security it brings, and it is Soderbergh's contention that money can indeed buy you happiness, or something like a fabricated version of it: "the girlfriend experience" is escort parlance for a prostitute who acts for a few hours like an emotional companion, someone to chat with, and cuddle, and sit next to in front of the TV, and make out, and probably have sex, although it's not expected. In other words, paying somebody to pretend to be in love with you, which is after all a completely different thing than paying somebody to have sex. The title cuts two ways, though, for "the girlfriend experience" also refers to Chelsea's life, which seems to be altogether emotionally empty, and yet it's plain that she'd like to have whatever it is that long-term relationships are supposed to provide. It's clear that she doesn't really know, and Soderbergh isn't telling. At any rate, her relationship with Chris is seemingly every bit as shallow and acted as her relationships with her clients. But that's her girlfriend experience: not faking love for someone else, but for herself. It's far more nuanced than "all the money in the world won't make you happy", since it's quite clear that whatever Chelsea suffers right now, things would be a whole lot worse if the looming spectre of nationwide economic wipeout came to pass, and she truly had nothing.

The way that Soderbergh puts the film together reflects all of this, kind of; and it's also kind of indulgent cinematic frippery; and in both cases, I wouldn't trade it for anything. For a start, this is a ridiculously lovely, glossy movie, with beautiful HD footage of chic New York places, and Soderbergh's - I'm sorry, Peter Andrews's - camera keeps drifting away from the action at hand to ogle the lovely things all over, or just to make sure we have a good sense of the space that things take place in, and get a good opportunity to think about how damn much it must cost. This is real estate porno with a dedicated purpose, instead of just making us sigh with contented daydreams about having such a nice place. Soderbergh isn't condemning conspicuous consumption, nor praising it; he's just making it clear that it exists and it's not sustainable, but you can understand why people are trying so fucking hard to sustain it, even if the cost is their basic humanity.

As for the structure; the loop-de-loop, borderline incoherent structure. I think it serves basically the same purpose here that it did in The Limey: showing the way that the human brain, in remembering things, hopscotches about without care for nice things like narrative structure. Only GFE is far more willful in its structural radicalism than The Limey ever thought about: where that film followed a very general path from first event to last, the new film doesn't even start to give us clues about where things fit together until about halfway through. I can't ultimately decide how rewarding it is in terms of the movie: does the film's argument about materialism actually benefit from this wholesale assault on the language of cinema? And then I remember that I don't care, because sometimes the point of formal experimentation is formal experimentation, and if Soderbergh is having fun playing around with structure and I'm having fun watching him do it, well, nobody's getting hurt.

The film is not for everyone, boilerplate boilerplate. I'm not going to make any apologies for loving this project: I think that it says very interesting and maybe important things about the state of America around the time of the '08 election, it says them in a cinematically dynamic way, and it's fun in the manner of a Full Frontal or Schizopolis, assuming that we can agree that those things are fun. I do not know if history will judge this an important document of the Times In Which We Live, but it surely seems to me that it captured something vital.

P.S. Every critic is duty-bound to mention that the escort reviewer, feeling a bit like a parody of Harry Knowles, is played by the great film-blogger Glenn Kenny, thus furthering the film's use of real-life people to explore how the New Economy has altered the way we function in life. I couldn't fit it in the body of the review, but hey, it's Glenn Kenny. The man is a continuing inspiration to us all.