Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience opens with a coolly rendered illusion. An immaculately dressed man and woman chat in a taxi, then over dinner, later trading kisses and whispers in a hotel room before curling up in bed together. Their casual, familiar rapport extends into a bathrobe breakfast the next morning, and it isn't until the woman walks away with a fat envelope of cash that viewers grasp that the two aren't a couple in the usual sense. The man is a wealthy financial-services type, just one of many who avail themselves of the services of Chelsea, a high-priced Manhattan escort who offers the film's titular "girlfriend experience" -- emotional intimacies that go beyond sex.
Shot on digital video in 16 days, The Girlfriend Experience is a typical Soderbergh offering, centering on process -- how a character goes through his or her life, rather than a psychologically oriented query about why. The film trails Chelsea through her daily routine --heatless dates and bedroom encounters, sprinkled with a variety of "strategy meetings" with an accountant, a Web-page designer, a sex blogger-critic, a journalist interested in profiling her. Each offers advice or potential services to help Chelsea expand her brand; each also wants his pound of flesh from her. Chelsea does have a personal life -- she lives with a physical trainer who tries to quell his apprehension about her work -- but the film doesn't dwell long on Chelsea's real-life girlfriend experience. More than anything, Girlfriend Experience presents Chelsea as a freelance worker trying to get ahead in uncertain times.
Drawing deeply on a vein of capitalist critique, Girlfriend Experience is set in the shaky days of October 2008 -- the bailout and the election loom on the horizon, and all Chelsea's clients can talk of is the impending financial crack-up. The libidinal current of Girlfriend Experience isn't sex, contrary to what one might expect from a film with real-life adult-film actor Sasha Grey in the starring role -- it's money and status. Everyone in the film -- from Chelsea herself to her boyfriend to Chelsea's financier clients -- is jockeying for position, and each interaction is colored with transactional calculations.
In addition to providing Soderbergh the opportunity to mull over meta-questions of acting and verisimilitude, art and reality, Chelsea makes a convenient metaphor for the hustling such economic end days seem to demand. But in crafting this conceit, Soderbergh loses sight of the particularities of Chelsea's situation. Not everyone's a whore, as my viewing companion Karen reminded me -- in our society, only a whore is a whore. Only Chelsea is doing work that is illegal, bears a heavy social stigma, and serves as a rhetorical and legislative hot-button issue. Soderbergh attempts to use Chelsea as a symbol to demonstrate how we're all cogs in a flawed, insecure system, but in order to do so, he strips her work of the complexity and conflict from which it is enmeshed in the real world. A pity, as Soderbergh could have made a truly fascinating film about the real-life logistics of someone in Chelsea's position. How does she deal with banking and taxes? With the possibility of run-ins with law enforcement? With the psychological aspects of concealing part of her life?
Soderbergh tries for a kind of egalitarianism by both disregarding the stigma and illegality of Chelsea's work and by tarring up his male characters -- Chelsea's trainer boyfriend is far more aggressive in his attempts to shake down clients and employers than she is; Chelsea also has an unfortunate encounter with a gross sex blogger, who wants to sample her wares for free in exchange for a glowing write-up. Played by entertainment writer and film critic Glenn Kenny, the self-styled "erotic connoisseur," he gives Girlfriend Experience a welcome, greasy jolt. He presents such a feast of entertaining loathsomeness that he scarcely seems real -- but this caricatured portrait also underscores the fact that none of the other men, played with blank verisimilitude, would be viewed as harshly as Chelsea would in the real world.
Not only does Soderbergh strip Chelsea of the potential, gendered complications of her situation, but he also hollows out her interior in the attempt to make her the vehicle for his whore-as-metaphor economic critique. Part of this may be Grey's acting, which is affectless to the point of being inert -- intentionally so, perhaps, as it renders her a convenient canvas on which Soderbergh can work out his ideas. They're interesting ones, at least in theory. Can a person become a product? What is the line between economic empowerment and social degradation? And the perpetual meta-narrative question: What part of this act is real anyway?
In practice, however, Soderbergh only feints at providing Chelsea with the inner life that would flesh out these questions with real import. She begins to open up to a new client -- is she succumbing to the seduction of the girlfriend experience as well? But neither the film nor Grey has enough conviction to carry off this sort of emotional coup, and Soderbergh is too infatuated with his undifferentiated we're-all-hustling-now economic critique and hall-of-mirrors film structure to allow his dramatic scrim a life of her own ? or to question the ways in which Chelsea?s financier clients may have contributed to our current fix.
Soderbergh toys with the question of authenticity -- his casting Grey provides viewers with a frisson of will-she or won't-she (she won't) -- but the main romance here is of friction with a fiction, an enthrallment with the fantasy of surfaces, celluloid, and otherwise. The film opens with a discussion of the movie Chelsea and her client have just seen and ends with the sex blogger's cruel review of Chelsea's performance -- the whole continuum of film and its consumption, from acting to viewing to critiquing. Soderbergh just can't resist the urge to get in his double bill -- to create a superficial quid-pro-quo critique of economic and emotional transaction and to use Chelsea's navel to gaze at his own and ponder film, illusion, and reality. The film is a great tease -- one that could have offered specific and trenchant economic insight and a character who had real wholeness. Instead, Soderbergh settles for replicating the fake reality, the real fakery of "the girlfriend experience," a slippery fantasy dolled up in drab critique. As Chelsea tells the nosy journalist, "They want you to be what they want you to be."