This weekend offers a choice between two beguiling films about professional lovers who lose their bearings in a gilded age that’s on the verge of ruin—one stars a 51-year-old Oscar-nominated screen siren, the other a 21-year-old hard-core porn star. In Chéri, Michelle Pfeiffer plays an aging courtesan who falls in love with a young man half her age amid the lavish friperie of La Belle Epoque in Paris. In The Girlfriend Experience , Sasha Grey makes her mainstream film debut as a high-priced Manhattan call girl servicing anxious businessmen in the early months of the current recession. Both characters are cool, calculating beauties who treat sex as liquid currency, and get into trouble when they break their cardinal rule of remaining emotionally uninvolved. Chéri is a baroquely scripted adaptation of two Colette novels, adapted by director Stephen Frears and playwright Christopher Hampton, the team behind Dangerous Liasons. The Girlfriend Experience features a cast of non-actors bluffing their way through improvised dialogue under the crafty direction of Steven Soderbergh essaying Jean-Luc Godard-lite. But both are slender, observational narratives, melancholic comedies of manners that view the world’s moral bankruptcy through a needlepoint scrim of taste and fashion. Between Pfeiffer and Grey, of course, there’s no question as to who is the better actress. No contest. But by merely staying afloat as Soderbergh’s lead, while sustaining a vacant intrigue, Grey gives the more startling performance. Pfeiffer is immensely watchable, and Chéri offers all the idle pleasures of a well-decorated period confection, but The Girlfriend Experience is the better, and more interesting, film.
Meryl Streep may be the designated Best Actress of Her Generation. But I’ve always thought Michelle Pfeiffer could be at least as good if given the same opportunities. She’s never had a chance to prove her full range, because her roles have been constricted by a handicap or two. The main one, of course, is her distracting beauty, which is devastating on screen—and off. (Take my word for it: among all the movie stars I’ve interviewed over the years, Pfeiffer came the closest to living up to the “goddess” image in person, even if she was just going through the motions of promoting Catwoman as I attempted to carry on a conversation without getting lost in her idle gaze.) Pfeiffer’s other handicap has been her apparent lack of ambition. After a string of electric performances in the 1980s, from Scarface to The Fabulous Baker Boys, for the past two decades she has kept her career on cruise-control, taking on safe, undemanding roles while focusing on her family. But that lack of obvious ambition is also what makes her such a good actor. Unlike her beauty, her acting is always invisible. With Streep, you often feel you’re watching a performance, and there’s a something showy about the way she carves out a big scene, whether she’s doing comedy (The Devil Wears Prada) or drama (Doubt). But Pfeiffer’s style is modest to a fault.
Given the pedigree of Frears and Hampton, and the literary source material, you might expect Chéri to be in the same league as Dangerous Liasons. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Colette’s story lacks the diabolical complexity of Liasons, or the subtlety of Age of Innocence. In the end, it’s a simple May-December romance, nicely-acted and handsomely framed. Pfeiffer stars as Léa de Lonval, a famous and affluent courtesan on the verge of retirement who seduces a louche 19-year-old playboy nicknamed Chéri (Rupert Friend). As he refuses to grow up and she refuses to grow old, they make a decadent odd couple, shocking polite society as their boudoir tryst turns into a six-year live-in relationship. Against her better judgment, Léa falls in love with her boy toy, even though she’s loathe to admit it. And when Chéri’s mother (Kathy Bates) finally separates them to find a more appropriate match for her son, Léa is secretly devastated.
As a gossipy matron with a venomous tongue, Bates works hard to steal every scene she’s in, but I felt she was simply over-acting. But Pfeiffer’s performance, as usual, has perfect pitch. And her regal beauty is well-served by the role—that a young man would find her ravishing is utterly credible. In the early part of the film, when Léa is still the unsentimental sexual provocateur, Pfeiffer shows glints of the subversive edge that made her so scintillating during the 1980s. She loses much of that as Léa becomes reduced to a lovesick victim of middle age pining for a young man who never really showed us why he was worth more than a sexual dalliance. But Pfeiffer maintains her poise throughout. It’s not her performance that limits Chéri, it’s the script, which too thin to support the emotional weight it’s expected to bear.
The Girlfriend Experience
I wrote about Soderbergh’s film, and interviewed Sasha Grey, for this week’s magazine. You can find that piece by clicking on A new kink in cinema’s porn habit. The article dwells on the novelty of Soderbergh casting a porn star for her conversation. And that’s a relationship that mirrors Grey’s character in the movie: she plays a high-priced call girl, and what makes her a cut above a conventional hooker is not the outrageousness of the sex (which Grey is famous for in porn), but her willingness to talk and listen—to provide what’s called “a girlfriend experience.” Grey’s notoriety has has dominated the publicity around the film, and that was part of his plan all along: “I was very much counting on the fact that the interest in her would be greater than the interest in the movie,” Soderbergh told the Los Angeles Times. “We would be drafting off her notoriety rather than vice versa. I needed her. That’s no different than getting Brad Pitt to be in your movie, albeit in a different context.”
But Grey’s stunt casting is a bit of tease. This is the first movie she’s appeared in without a sex scene. The film is not really about sex, but it is about prostitution, which Soderbergh has harnessed as a classic metaphor for capitalism. And the story is not really about Grey’s character, but about the business of soothing the egos of a clientele traumatized by the economic crisis. It’s about the whole notion of a service industry that traffics in intimacy—which is as much the business of Hollywood as it is of porn or prostitution. Grey plays Chelsea, a call girl who earns $2,000-an-hour. She lives with a very patient boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), who earns $125-an-hour as a personal trainer, babysitting bodies in a business that seems only slightly less humiliating than hers, and more slavish in a way. When Chelsea falls for a client, their already strained relationship begins to crack. Chris, meanwhile, is persuaded to fly off to a dirty weekend in Las Vegas in a private jet chartered by one of his wealthier clients.
The story unfolds in the kind of cubist, non-linear chronology Soderbergh is fond of, and the structure makes a lot of sense given what transpires. The dialogue is improvised—a wise choice given that Soderbergh has filled his cast with non-professional actors, including magazine journalist Marc Jacobson, who plays a journalist, and veteran film critic Glenn Kenny, who plays a creepy call-girl reviewer called the Erotic Connoisseur. Reminiscent of American Psycho, the film’s landscape is a kaleidescope of designer brands, which presumably represents another kind pornography.The details are telling: Chelsea will fork out serious money for designer clothes, and then she’ll go into a discount store and ask for the cheapest cell phone available—then buy two of them. The Girlfriend Experience is a low-budget film. But Soderbergh, who serves as his own cinematographer, shoots it with a seductive verité style.
Throughout all this, Sasha Grey remains something of a cipher. She doesn’t have to reveal much of herself. But that seems to be the point. She doesn’t have to do much. She is, after all, a porn star trying to be a real actress playing a prostitute who pretends to be a girlfriend to her clients. That’s a staggering declension of roles. Grey’s face is mostly inexpressive, a dutiful mirror that soothes and deflects the egos she’s paid to cultivate, while hiding deeper secrets. And in the mask of those impassive features—which flicker between a young girl’s naiveté and a sex worker’s hardened experience—Soderbergh finds a sad world of unwitting nuance.