The Girlfriend Experience (15); Me and Orson Welles (12A)

Soderbergh’s glossy take on prostitution is nowhere near as much fun as Linklater’s tribute to a theatrical heavyweight
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The Independent Culture

Here are two films with little in common except that they're both made by very singular directors. Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh are, if you like, the two professional "outside men" of US cinema. Tenacious stalwarts once synonymous with independent American film, both are now on very good terms with the mainstream, though more or less laws unto themselves (Soderbergh, in fact, has long been sufficiently well-connected to be an outsider in spirit only). They're both hyper-prolific, versatile, unlikely to make the same film twice; granted, Soderbergh made three Ocean's films, but that's how he gets to make his stranger stuff. And they can be workmanlike rather than innovative – yet, when they do stick their necks out (Linklater's trippy animations such as A Scanner Darkly, Soderbergh's Solaris), then you really notice.

Their latest releases are medium-quality examples of what each can do – and not instantly recognisable as their work. Soderbergh's film, perhaps more so: he's the real hands-on man of the two, shooting his films himself under the nom de lens of Peter Andrews – and as we know from the luxuriously vacant Ocean's trilogy, Andrews can certainly shoot glossy. The Girlfriend Experience is in a vein of studied sleekness and vacancy, but because it portrays a sleek, vacant world. The titular experience is the package offered by Chelsea, an upmarket Manhattan escort who, for a substantial fee, will not only sleep with a punter but join him for dinner, go to a movie and (how much more intimate can you get?) discuss investment tips. Soderbergh applies jigsaw editing to the script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, reflecting a fragmented world in which personal narratives, like relationships, have lost their organic shape and meaning. The film counterpoints Chelsea's commercial life, as she tries to maximise her brand online, and that of her personal trainer boyfriend (Chris Santos), paid to accompany a bunch of Wall Street spenders on a Vegas jaunt.

And guess what? We are all prostitutes. The premise would be banal except for the execution – like Chelsea herself, at once seductive and alienating – and for the film's timing, with the references to looming economic catastrophe (set in the lead-up to the presidential election, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US last January).

There's also a trick of conceptual casting: Chelsea is played by Sasha Grey, the "adult" movie star famous from Swallow This 12, Face Invaders 4, and many other Cahiers du Cinéma-approved classics, and probably the only porn actress who claims to be into Antonioni, Baudrillard and the Situationists. Here playing a paradoxically chaste part, Grey comes across as strangely blank and guarded, her exquisitely chunky face suggesting a mixture of perversity, demure chic and politely glacial reserve. Film critic Glenn Kenny plays a slimy internet "connoisseur" and mischievously sends up his day job, reciting a vicious but in some respects accurate critique of Chelsea's "flat affect". Whether or not Grey gives a good performance in the standard sense, she certainly exudes an inscrutably sophisticated aura, and the film is as much about her enigma as Chelsea's. Mind you, the connoisseur has a point about Chelsea's "refusal to engage": she's not the liveliest conversationalist, and these days aren't de luxe call girls supposed to be able to make light chat about neurotoxicology?

I first saw the film in June and liked its glassy detachment; on a second viewing, it seems less substantial, more fascinated by restaurant lighting than by people. The Girlfriend Experience certainly glamorises prostitution, to an almost parodic degree, although the whole point is to expose glamour as a euphemism for money. Can a film date so quickly? Yes, in part because Soderbergh's work rate means that his films are often of the moment, and no more: given the specific time references, it's justifiable to see this as Soderbergh's Spring '09 picture. But it's way better than his facetious Autumn '09 effort The Informant!. It doesn't say anything too deep, but it says it with crystalline style.

Linklater's film is much jollier. This Texan director can be lyrical and intimate (Before Sunrise) or downright crowd-pleasing (School of Rock), but Me and Orson Welles is his most personable and old-fashioned film yet. Written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, it's a cheerful coming-of-age story about a tyro actor who lands a walk-on part in Orson Welles's legendary 1937 stage production of Julius Caesar.

Shot by Dick Pope, and scored to bursts of Duke Ellington et al, the film has a warm, lived-in period feel close to Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, and a similar ain't-theatre-crazy vibe. But there's a hard-bitten realism behind the sweetness: Claire Danes's archetypal Nice Girl proves very go-getting indeed, while Welles, genius though he is, is also an overbearing manipula

tor, a shameless showboater, and a womaniser ruthlessly insisting on droit de seigneur. He's also somewhat lacking in self-awareness: "Have you ever heard anybody so in love with the sound of his own voice?" he fumes, meaning John Gielgud). There are other good Welles jokes: here it's Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) who steps out of the shadows like Harry Lime.

The film was shot in Pinewood and the Isle of Man, and assorted Brits shine in a knowingly stagey way: Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, Ben Chaplin as a grandly neurotic George Coulouris. Christian McKay as the Great Man is no dead ringer, yet as you study his face, elongated rather than podgy, it's fascinating how discrete parts of it keep clicking into Wellesian shapes – the knowing flirtatious moue, the quizzical brow. It's one of cinema's better studies of Genius as Prat.

I'm not entirely sure about the casting of High School Musical idol Zac Efron as the ingenu hero – blandly cocky, he's a little too knowing about his own clean charisma, but it's a bright, zesty performance. But I couldn't help wondering who he reminded me of, until his neatly arched eyebrows gave it away – he looks uncannily like a male Sasha Grey. In fact, some enterprising soul could cast them as brother and sister … sorry, that's just too perverse.

The best thing about Linklater's film, however, is its patent love of theatre, and when we get to see the excerpts from the Mercury Theatre Caesar, with its great Constructivist shafts of light, it's a thrilling climax. When Welles himself marvels, "How the hell do I top that?" you do rather want to see what this promising talent got up to next.

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