PARK CITY, Utah - Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh premiered an early cut of his new film, The Girlfriend Experience, at last month's 25th annual Sundance Film Festival. Shot in New York City last fall for a modest 1.7 million, the film stars AVN Award-winning porn star Sasha Grey as a high-priced Manhattan call-girl.
Before the screening, Soderbergh stressed to the audience that the film was not yet complete. Critics lucky enough to catch the sneak preview compared it favorably to Soderbergh's 2006 low-budget indie Bubble (both films feature non-professional actors) and applauded the director's often experimental approach to moviemaking. Grey's performance drew mixed reactions.
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman described Grey as "a real-life adult-video star who turns out to be not so much a natural actress as a natural-born disaffected walking Barbie (she looks like Ashley Dupree with a touch of Demi Moore) who Soderbergh uses intentionally for her spiritual flatness."
Reviewer Neil Miller of the website FilmSchoolRejects.com noted that it was "impossible" to give a real appraisal of the film based on the rough cut screened at Sundance. However, he called Sasha's performance "a surprise".
"[Grey] does her best to bust up the stigma of being a porn star in a 'real movie' by delivering in the film’s most emotional moment," Miller wrote. "As for the rest of the film, it would appear that Grey is more expertly cast than in possession of some great acting talent. She gives her character a steely outer shell, then allows the shell to break away as more about her personal life is revealed."
James Rocchi of Cinematical expressed a similar opinion, remarking on how Grey's background in porn worked well for the movie.
"Grey is not a great actress—I can’t really imagine her playing Ophelia or one of the Three Sisters—but she is someone who, at the most direct level, has sex with people she doesn’t know that well for money, and her matter-of fact demeanor and dimmer-switch coquettishness—she can go from inviting to dead-eyed at the flick of a synapse—serves the film well."
Soderbergh told critics at Sundance that "he cast a porn star precisely because she would deliver an “attitude” about sex-for-hire," Hollywood Reporter correspondent Kirk Honeycutt wrote in his review of the rough cut. "What this actress can’t deliver, though, is much sense of what’s going on inside. She comes closest in a scene with a new client where she fumes over her bad Internet review."
Internet reviewer Devin Faraci elaborated on the scene referenced in Honeycutt's review.
"Sasha Grey's performance is interesting," Faraci wrote for CHUD.com. "At one point, the Erotic Connoisseur writes a review of her where he talks about her [...] blankness, and that does describe the way Grey plays Chelsea. But then, Chelsea is a hugely guarded person, hiding her real self not just when she's with her clients, but seemingly in all other parts of her life. That mask only slips a few times, and in those short moments of vulnerability Gray is almost sublime. I'm still torn about whether the 'affectless' comment was inserted to make an acting problem into a character problem - there are a number of moments of voice over where Gray flubs a line and then just starts it over again, which indicates that it's this roughness and amateur quality that Soderbergh is seeking - but in those scenes of vulnerability, there's no question that something real is happening on screen."
Grey got her best advance notice from the website Collider.com.
"Perhaps surprisingly, [Grey] more than holds her own in the role of Chelsea, even if said role doesn’t require a particularly robust range," wrote reviewer Peyton Kellogg. "Natural and assured, Grey never once confirms that she comes from a genre riddled with some of the worst acting ever committed to film or tape. On the contrary, she’s quite good and might even have a credible future in mainstream cinema."
The Girlfriend Experience is scheduled for May release from Magnolia. Grey declined comment on the reviews when contacted by AVN.
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