Chelsea (Grey) is a ‘smoky-eyed’, high-class escort in New York City. She charges rich businessmen thousands of dollars, by the hour, for her company; but it isn’t the sex that they are paying for – they could go to any old hooker for that – it is ‘the girlfriend experience’. Chelsea lives in a sumptuous, open-plan apartment with her real boyfriend Chris (Santos), a personal trainer who is supportive of her career choice. Chelsea seems fairly content, but the life she has chosen is a transitory and hollow one, and she is clearly incapable of finding any real peace or solidity.
And that, in a nutshell, is the premise of ‘The Girlfriend Experience’: it is an opportunity to observe the emotional vicissitudes of one of life’s most mysterious creatures, that elusive succubus, the ‘woman of the night’. It is certainly an interesting project; and there is a lot to commend it in the pace and tone of the film, the performances of the leading players (both of whom are novices) and the way these performances are expertly captured by Soderbergh and DoP Peter Andrews. But unfortunately the film doesn’t seem to add up to the sum of its parts. The world of escorting might seem to be both glamorous and romantic and yet sordid and guttural; but Soderbergh is determined to avoid these polarities, and he concentrates on the mundane empty, loneliness of this world. Unfortunately, in so doing, he creates a cold and detached film that fails to really grip the viewer or persuade us that this is a story we should care about.
In between clients, Chelsea meets with friends, fellow escorts, and business advisors (many of whom are actually clients) in a bid to develop her business and become more successful. She gives a sleazy but influential sex-critic a ‘free sample’ in return for favourable reviews and business opportunities; but his review turns out to be nasty, and she also notices some of her clients cavorting with fresh-faced escorts. Chris is also trying to become more financially independent by taking on a management position at a gym, but the economic downturn makes this extremely difficult. These stressful tribulations are clearly having an effect on their relationship, as Chris seems to be the only person who cant get a ‘girlfriend experience’ out of Chelsea. When Chelsea meets a mysterious and charming new client, a screenwriter from LA, she decides to go away with him for the weekend despite Chris’s protestations. With their relationship in tatters, Chris goes of for a ‘boys trip’ to Vegas with a rich client, and Chelsea is stood up by the client, who returns to his family in California.
The lead performance is certainly worthy of merit. Sasha Grey is a fascinating young woman: a veritable legend of the porn industry with a passion for the French New Wave, Oscar Wilde, and transgressive art. She has been featured in radical fashion shoots, including artwork for a Smashing Pumpkins album, and was listed in Rolling Stone Magazine’s Hot List 2009. It is fair to say, then, that Grey is not your average porn star; she is a ballsy, passionate, and irresistible creature, and you cant help but be drawn into her quiet, mysterious, transgressive charm. This is her feature film debut – and it should be noted that she is a porn star playing an escort, so she probably didn’t have to dig too deep into her Stanislavski handbook – but she manages to come across as completely controlled and yet natural to a fault; and on the few occasions that high emotion are required, she is quite breathtaking.
The look of the film is effortlessly effective, but surely nobody doubts Soderbergh’s intimate understanding of the language of film. The whole film carries a sort of documentary aesthetic (unsteady camera movements, uncomfortable close-ups, inconsistent sound, etc) but it remains subtle and unobtrusive throughout. Soderbergh knows exactly how long to allow the actors to improvise, and exactly how long to leave the camera rolling. Awkward silences never grow too awkward, and shot lengths/ composition choices are juggled and varied often enough so that the film, despite its dreary subject matter, never looks dull or uncinematic.
The film is told through a fractured narrative, although this is never really forced upon us either. This fracturing works because it forces us to accept the circularity and repetitiveness of Chelsea’s world. Chelsea thinks she is on a linear path, and she is heading for some magnificent future where everything will be ok; but she is a tragic figure, incapable of recognizing her own flaws, and she is destined to stumble through the same mistakes and uncertainties throughout her troubled life. The way this hopelessness is weaved into the narrative should probably feel like a triumph for the film; but unfortunately it is not a ‘hopelessness’ filled with pathos or tragedy, it is a cold and empty hopelessness that doesn’t arouse any emotions in the audience.
Another upsetting thing about this film is the purposeful timing, and the effect it has on the character development. The story occurs in the lead up to the 2008 Presidential Election, and also in the midst of the economic downturn, and Chelsea and Chris are both in the business of listening to rich executives talk for one hour at a time. Soderbergh mistakenly saw this as a clever and interesting way to ram some fairly obvious and painfully obsolete economic and political drivel down our throats. While films about Obama and the economic crash will someday be essential, there had not been enough time to consider them as historic events when Soderbergh was making this film, and so his dealing with them feels crass and topical. Furthermore, the decision to spend so long listening to coke-sniffing, whore-loving executives talk about the abomination of higher taxes for the rich removes any hope of Soderbergh getting to know his characters, let alone taking the time to introduce them to us!