I remember, nearly twenty years ago, seeing a little film about four characters dealing with intimacy entitled Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). I was struck by the characters' honesty in the film and how each were so willing to open up to the other about the most intimate facets of each's life. James Spader gave the standout performance, while Andie MacDowell, Laura San Giacomo, and Peter Gallagher were also stellar. That film's director, Steven Soderbergh, has returned to tackle the same themes in a very different fashion in The Girlfriend Experience (2009).Chelsea (Sasha Grey) and her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), live together in a posh flat in Manhattan. Chris is a personal trainer and Chelsea is a call girl. Both are ambitious and both charge high fees (Chelsea's are a little higher). The Girlfriend Experience takes place in 2008 around the time of the first government corporate bailouts, the beginning of the recession, and smack in the heat of the presidential campaign. Even if Chelsea didn't pick up a newspaper or watch cable news, she would be well-versed in recent events: almost every one of her johns either complains about how badly the economy is going or gives her advice about where and how to invest (gold is good). Chelsea's a diligent listener and she rarely gets a word in edgewise. Chris, meanwhile, is looking to move up from personal training into gym management or into making his own athletic clothes line. Unfortunately, no one has the money to invest in such a venture, nor does Chris have anything to bargain with his employer. Chelsea, engaging in the oldest profession in the world, is constantly being hassled by wannabe investors; each offering her a way to make even more money, through slick internet campaigning, sexy boutiques, or an opportunity to be the focus of a serious journalist's new article. Everyone wants a piece of her pie.As much of the focus of the characters' dialogue and the substance of their interactions revolve around the faltering economy and money, Soderbergh gives the viewer little reason to think that any of these characters are hurting financially. The majority of the scenes are shot in luxury apartments and high-class bars and restaurants. No one drives: every character is driven or like Chris is offered a chance to fly away for a weekend in Las Vegas on a private jet. No tattered clothes are worn here; only the finest threads are seen. Unlike the honesty in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the honesty about intimacy is hidden in The Girflriend Experience. The majority of the truth of these characters, specifically Chelsea, is only given in brief, yet powerful, glimpses.Chelsea and Chris's relationship never appears loving or intimate; it appears more like a business venture. In one scene, after Chelsea views one of her clients with another high-class call girl, Chelsea's confidence gets shaken. She opens up to Chris in a very loud bar. He tells her not to worry: Chelsea's the best at whatever she sets her mind to. In so many words, his girlfriend is still the top hooker, and Chris goes to the bar and blows her off. Chelsea is looking for love, and when she meets a sensitive john who she thinks will provide her that love, she's willing to leave Chris. That particular john was special in really only one way: he was the first to listen to her, instead of babbling on about his own problems. The background of the faltering economy is a canvas for a self-absorbed culture. Grey gives a very good performance in a quiet role. Chelsea is not going to open up to just anyone (as the journalist notes at their power lunch meeting). The few shots of Grey walking the streets of Manhattan alone, looking down behind her sunglasses, or holding her knees to her chest in the cold show the real Chelsea. Soderbergh is a master of the modern visual style: natural lighting, handheld camera and beautifully-framed still compositions, and minimal music. This is the Soderbergh that I remember from old, like Out of Sight (1998), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Traffic (2000). The Girlfriend Experience is a beautiful film. Honesty and intimacy are rare commodities in this culture, but when they are shown, they show how powerful they are. Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience is easily one of the best films of this young year.