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‘The Girlfriend Experience’/'Sin Nombre’

The high life and low life and both spot on

by Giovanni Fazio

From the era of President Ronald Reagan onward, life in the United States has been marked by one salient trend: the increasing Brazilification of society, where wealth is concentrated in a super-rich elite, while the underclass swells and the middle class shrinks.

Two films on release this week offer a look at the extremes of life on either end of this equation: “The Girlfriend Experience” follows a few days in the life of a high-priced call girl catering to brokers and other filthy rich Manhattanites who can afford her $2,000 an hour rates; “Sin Nombre” looks at a pair of Central American emigrants hopping freight trains up to the U.S. border, where they hope to cross illegally and start a new life.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is one of those quick and dirty art films (such as “Full Frontal” and “Schizopolis”) that Steven Soderbergh knocks off between his higher profile star-studded “Ocean’s Eleven” type of movies.

Shot on the fly over the course of two weeks, with almost every scene improvised, “The Girlfriend Experience” might have been a blip on the radar were it not for Soderbergh’s inspired casting of 21-year-old porn star Sasha Grey as the lead.

Soderbergh picked up the phone after reading an interview with Grey, and it’s easy to see why: It’s not everyday you find an adult movie actress who can ramble on about Jean-Luc Godard or Friedrich Nietzsche.

Not that you should expect any shagging in the film, which is closer to Michelangelo Antonioni than to hardcore. (Though Grey does indeed look stunning.)

The Girlfriend Experience
Rating
Director Steven Soderbergh
Run Time 77 minutes
Language English
Sin Nombre
Rating
Director Cary Fukunaga
Run Time 96 minutes
Language Spanish

Soderbergh’s intent is not to show the physical gratification the johns are buying, but the emotional. “Romance is the illusion of love,” as someone in a Catherine Breillat film once said, but it’s never more illusory than when you’re paying for it.

Chelsea, Grey’s character in the film, commands such rates because she excels at making the men who call upon her feel like they’re having some sort of connection. But, she notes, “Sometimes the clients think they want the real you, but at the end of the day, they want you to be something else.”

Chelsea remains mostly inscrutable, protective of her real self, but bits do slip through, like when she tells a friend how she’s saved up a lot of money because she doesn’t want to “feel dependent on” her boyfriend, or, presumably, any man.

Chelsea’s daily routine is contrasted with that of her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer whose job-skill set is not that far removed from Chelsea, sucking up to his rich clients and forming the bond necessary to keep them paying for his services. Add to this how Chelsea’s clients, one and all, seem to see talking about financial markets and investments as foreplay, and you have a portrait of a society where capitalism has run amok, where human relations are nothing more than transactions. Maybe some of that Marxism from “Che” stuck with the director.

“The Girlfriend Experience” has felt slight to many critics; it jumps off in medias res, and ends the same way, without any huge climax in between. I would argue, however, that it has a fresh, snapshot-of-the-moment, jump-cut energy that’s admirable. It’s shot on the streets of Manhattan — even the soundtrack is by street musicians — full of the restaurants, brands, and galleries where the elite drop their thousands like dimes. The film digresses into the financial meltdown, the loose nature of “truth” on Net 2.0, and the head trip of trying to hold down a relationship when you sleep with other men for money. It reaches no conclusions, but has a cool, discursive style that will keep it ricocheting around your brain for days.

“Sin Nombre” is another film determined to show a bit of the world usually hidden from our gaze. First-time director Cary Fukunaga made several trips to Central America over the course of a two-year period where he hopped trains (usually on board the roofs of locked boxcars) with immigrants and learned of their hardships firsthand. (Fukunaga has described his first trip in interviews; bandits killed one immigrant on board, and food and water ran out.)

After making a short documentary on illegal immigrants in 2004, Fukunaga fleshed out the topic with some melodrama — boy meets girl, boy is running from gang — and wound up with this brilliant feature debut, which was also his thesis film at New York University.

“Sin Nombre” follows two teens — one Mexican, one Honduran — as they head north to the Texan border and a crossing at the Rio Grande: Casper (Edgar Flores), a gangbanger with the notoriously brutal (and scarily tattooed) La Mara Salvatrucha gang, makes a run for it after a crisis of conscience where he winds up crossing the gang’s leader. Riding a train heading north, he meets the far more innocent Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), an economic migrant who’s traveling with her estranged father and uncle, but looking to spread her wings. Needless to say, the gang is close behind, seeking to extract their vengeance.

It’s a story that seems familiar (Michael Winterbottom’s “In This World” springs to mind), but Fukunaga throws in plenty of surprises, and is always certain to follow the characters and their motivations, not a “message.”

This is neither liberal sob story nor rightwing fear-mongering, but something staying true to the actual, lived experience of immigrants.

“Sin Nombre” is shot and edited with imagination and flair, with gorgeous 35 mm landscapes that rival anything in Terence Malick’s oeuvre, the beauty of the land contrasting with the extremes of poverty and violence.

Fukunaga also succeeds in getting some great performances from his amateur cast, especially Flores, who brings a brooding, world-weary quality to his regret-wracked gangsta role. It’s easy to see why big names like Mexican stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna signed on as executive producers, and Fukunaga is clearly a director to watch.