Friday, June 26, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience by Steven Soderbergh

Now this is a very uncomfortable film about dehumanization and alienation, though one may be forgiven for considering it a titillating expose of the "escort culture". If Dubai and Manhattan sound like Mecca to you, and if success in business seems like an enchanting way to find happiness, and if you wonder what is loneliness, this film may provide a perspective which is deeply authentic.

This is a companion piece to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut because it (just like that film) is ultimately a nuanced critique of ruthless capitalism and of a pathetic kind of hedonism. Capitalism is about banking on one's capital (be it in physical assets or otherwise) to create further wealth. And this requires a certain amount of ruthlessness for the agenda is of making as much money (profit) as possible by as little effort (cost) as possible.

Pathetic hedonism is a compulsive urge to partake of pleasure, and when that partaking leaves one as empty and dissatisfied as before. Both in Kubrick's film and in this, the pleasure seems an almost detached, dream-like activity with little depth. In both films, an act of pleasure is more of a distraction from stress rather than genuine pleasure or joy. If being a party animal is a silly way to unwind for nubile professionals, then both these films show how there is no unwinding as you get entangled more and more in living by selling.

Prostitution is just a very crude form of selling oneself. In The Girlfriend Experience, notice the following forms of selling:
  • Selling of appearance (by the personal trainer)
  • Selling of branded goods (by the couture industry)
  • Selling of wealth creation opportunities (by the investment bankers)
  • Selling of dining experiences (by the gourmet industry)
  • Selling of one's business ideas

    and finally

  • Selling of the Girlfriend Experience
What is extremely interesting is the hyper-reality of all the above experiences. They promise, in their artificiality, more than their natural counterparts. The appearance created through cosmetics, personal trainers, etc. is simply too good to be true. The names of the brands one wears are way cooler than one's own name. The atmosphere of wealth creation through buying and selling at the right time is heady, though completely virtual, for the primeval trader in us.

"The girlfriend experience" is the epitome of this hyperreal pyramid. This experience (romantic love) is strictly about gratifying the ego, and how can one possibly convince oneself that a paid escort really loves oneself to the point of distraction? This is not just sex, this is the commodification of love itself. Enjoying a paid-for girlfriend experience requires a cognitive dissonance which is simply astonishing. And it automatically leads to a dependence on repeat experiences. The more contradictory a pleasurable experience, the more one wants to experience it in the hope that the contradiction is an illusion.

When you see this film, notice the extreme superficiality of everybody's responses, and the stress that that lack of spontaneity creates. Everybody, from the personal trainer to the "reviewer" (played by the famous film critic Glen Kenny), is curiously (but subtly) unnatural. This unnaturalness is the cost of success.

The only time the protagonist gives in to her true nature, and is spontaneous, she becomes stressed about the crack in the veneer and quickly jumps back into her successful persona.

This film is a treatise on selling, and on the inadequacy of what is sold.

Mark 8:36 needs no explanation.

The film is also remarkable for the visual artistry.

(in the above frame, notice the shadows instead of real people, and the obstruction between human beings)


Anonymous said...

dringscNice review of a film reminding me of Taxi Driver(1974).

Observer said...

"If Dubai and Manhattan sound like Mecca to you, and if success in business seems like an enchanting way to find happiness, and if you wonder what is loneliness, this film may provide a perspective which is deeply authentic."

Manhattan, is definitely better than Mecca, what is there in Mecca except an old meteorite and an oppressive regime.

Perhaps you meant Heaven. The games of power, such as business, are not meant to increase happiness, they are meant to increase power (duh).

Some people do not care about happiness, they want power and get a high from power games. Many such power seekers have also been immortalized in history, as great conquerors and kings.