By James Rocchi (original publication date -- 1/21/09 -- Sundance Film Festival

The beige square on the Sundance schedule for today -- "Sneak Preview," 6:15 at the Eccles -- was, over the past few days, filled in with a thousand brushstrokes of rumor and intimation and heard-it-from-a-friend-who-heard-it-from-a-friend whisperings. The first murmuring I heard to make that "Sneak Preview" a must-see was that the presentation was going to be an evening with Steven Soderbergh, a night of clips and conversation -- until that proposition, exciting as it was, was supplanted by another rumor: That the Eccles Sneak was going to be Soderbergh showing The Girlfriend Experience, his new run-and-gun, shot-with-the-4K-Red-digital-camera, adult-actress-in-the-lead-role, largely-improvised drama about the life of a New York escort. The rumors, for once, were true.

Soderbergh introduced the film with, as he put it, "a few caveats" as a "work in progress" projecting a 1080p reduction of the 4K file. In 1989, Soderbergh gave Sundance, and then us, sex, lies and videotape; in 2009, he offers sex, truth, and digital video. Much fuss was made when Soderbergh announced this film, and even more was made when he cast adult actress (the polite euphemism for 'porn star,' and that itself a polite euphemism for 'someone who has sex on-camera for money') Sasha Grey in the lead role as a Manhattan call girl who offers not just rushed release but the more refined "girlfriend experience" -- a suite of services including, as we see in the opener, fine red wine and Marc Jacobs black dresses, soft kisses and small talk, and many more things, an experience that goes far beyond sex. And yet still includes it.

Roland Barthes said "Sex is everywhere in America, except in sex." Sex is everywhere in The Girlfriend Experience, except there's no sex. There's a minimum of nudity, and we don't see anyone doing the deed, but as Grey's relationship with her boyfriend is challenged by her work, as she tries to satisfy old clients and meet new ones, as she stretches and tones her body with the same diligence and care any craftsman would apply to their tools of their trade, we come to understand that Soderbergh is less interested in sex work than he is in work; we watch Grey's trainer boyfriend look for opportunities with new gyms and pitch his clients on buying bigger training packages while she approaches an "escort reviewer" to try and increase her profile in the field and worry about re-launching her website with the best possible search engine optimization.

Within five minutes of the end of The Girlfriend Experience -- thank you, Twitter -- film journalist Eric Kohn dubbed it "a period piece from October 2008"; he's exactly right. People complain about the electoral debates, the bailout, the economy in free-fall; one of Grey's clients, as he undresses, notes how she has to vote for McCain to best support the state of Israel. Grey and her boyfriend are freelancers (Aren't we all? And if we are not, isn't it fairly possible we might be in the future?) and we watch them trying to stay paid and afloat in 2008, an effort that's all about the sell, the struggle, the work. Yes, it may be the world's oldest profession, but as we've all learned the hard way lately, seniority doesn't always mean security. You could make a case that Che is a film about the problems of communism; you could also make a case that The Girlfriend Experience (a title with layers of meaning and interpretation as intricate and delicate as the La Pearla lingerie Grey name-checks in her flat, matter-of-fact opening that narration about one of her client meetings) is a film about the problems of capitalism.

But for all of the hushed rumors that Soderbergh was going to go bravely into the realm of real sex on-screen with Grey as his muse, that never happens; instead, as Grey talks to her clients and her boyfriend and a client she might like to think of as her next boyfriend and a journalist and other men, she's blank and cool and pale as a movie screen, ready for whatever anyone might want to project on her. 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 stated in the post-screening Q&A that he shot the film in 16 days for a budget of 1.7 million; this may make The Girlfriend Experience an exercise, but it's a fascinating one. Working with non-professional actors (including journalist Mark Jacobsen as a journalist and movie reviewer Glenn Kenny -- a friend, but also undeniably hilarious and acid here -- as a escort reviewer) and with a camera so light and light-sensitive that only two scenes in the film required more illumination than was already in the room, Soderbergh's made an intimate and yet honest movie about honesty and intimacy. As he pulled the curtain down on the night, Soderbergh was mock-serious: "You were never here, and this never happened." But we were, and it did, and the crowd walked into the cold night more thoughtful than titillated, more anxious than aroused and, just perhaps, faked out by a very different Experience than the one the beige square on the Sundance schedule promised.