Steven Soderbergh Previews That New One With The Porn Star

It had been rumored here since at least Sunday, but that hardly made Steven Soderbergh's work-in-progress screening of his upcoming The Girlfriend Experience any less of a Sundance surprise Tuesday night.

Starring 20-year-old porn princess Sasha Grey amid a strong cast of non-actors (including former Premiere movie critic Glenn Kenny in a hilarious, disturbing cameo as a talky sex-trade connoisseur), Experience follows elite New York escort Chelsea through the routines and rigors of ambition, love and lifestyle. While she and her gym-trainer boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) strive for a more sizable slice of the American Dream — even as the economy contracts violently around them — their relationship erodes to a stalemate. The presidential election, the recession and each lover's unwavering career-mindedness coalesce into a nonlinear cocktail of modern dread, made all the more potent by Soderbergh's still, chilly camerawork and Grey's compounding vulnerability.

Soderbergh said during the post-screening Q&A that his lead was the only one of his actors who had ever appeared in front of a camera before. And yes, 150+ adult movies count, though Experience lacks not only explicit sex but rather any sexiness whatsoever. Having several years ago read Grey's more philosophical industry perspectives in a Los Angeles Magazine profile, the filmmaker said he hand-picked the actress to more realistically explore the transactional nature of Chelsea's sexuality.

"When the idea for this movie came about, I contacted her, and we sat down and talked," he said. "And I sort of described the way we work on these things. I said, you know, 'Would this be interesting for you?' Because even though the film's not very explicit, there's a comfort level that she obviously has from making all of those films that I think is difficult to fake. There's kind of an attitude. And she said, 'I want to try it. Let's see what happens.' ... It's really fun as a director to watch; I really like the idea of people speaking in their own words, really speaking for themselves. Everybody in there — that's them."

The final cut and mix are yet to come, but may be ready as a late addition to the Berlin Film Festival or, more likely, a premiere in competition at Cannes. Magnolia Pictures has yet to set a release date. But as Soderbergh films go, it's in the austere league of Bubble and Che, likely to confound the average moviegoer and irritate the eager pornhound Grey-ophile — which is kind of how we like him. At least until Cleo.