The Girlfriend Experience, in a sentence: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Indeed, in Steven Soderbergh’s latest offering, nearly all human relationships have been boiled down to transaction, with money either literally changing hands or influence being leveraged for personal gain. It’s a stunningly fresh portrait of America ca. October 2008 that takes place on the front lines of the Great Recession and during the final leg of a pivotal presidential election that manages to feel both disarmingly immediate and strangely distant. The events the film chronicles are less than a year old but, man, how things have changed.
The film, told out of sequence so that the viewer must piece together its chronology, follows Chelsea (porn star Sasha Grey), a high-priced Manhattan call-girl, as she wines, dines, and goes to bed with her Upper East Side clients, most of them businessmen who engage her in doomster post-coital pillow talk as they fret about their dwindling stock portfolios—that is, if they can even get it up anymore. Meanwhile, Chelsea’s boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer, works his way up the job ladder selling a different fantasy: the perfect body.
Soderbergh’s characteristically detached style made his last film, Che, easier to appreciate than to actually sit through. Here, however, it works perfectly, effectively underscoring Chelsea’s emotional barrenness. (She is, after all, a blank slate for her clients to project their fantasies upon.) Using extreme closeups and out-of-focus lensing, he subtly deconstructs Manhattan glitz, rendering the gilded interiors the characters inhabit abstract and alien, revealing them to be as illusory as the wealth they denote.
Indeed, Soderbergh has said that he was influenced by Antonioni’s Red Desert and Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, both films in which Expressionist exteriors — artificially painted landscapes in the former, bright red walls in the latter — reflect the suppressed hysteria of their characters. Accordingly, the sleek, modernist penthouses that contain much of The Girlfriend Experience's action suggest the emotional sterility of its characters.
As Chelsea, Grey is an intriguing mix of vacuous and mysterious, appropriately channeling a little girl playing at being grown while also managing to convey a quiet intelligence — a world weariness, perhaps — beyond her years. As an escort, she wholly embodies the paradox that is Soderbergh’s central thesis: She is both the player and the played, simultaneously entrepreneur and commodity, a totally economic unit whose body is the very site of exchange. She is Main Street and Wall Street. She is everybody, nobody -- and, for the right price, whoever you want her to be. But, at the end of the day, she’s also just like the rest of us, trying to get by in an increasingly uncertain world.