reviewed by Marc Glassman
The Girlfriend Experience
Steven Soderbergh, director; Brian Koppelman & David Levien, script; Starring: Sasha Grey (Chelsea), Chris Santos (Chris), Peter Zizzo (favoured client), Glenn Kenny (Erotic Connoisseur), Mark Jacobson (journalist)
Former porn star Sasha Grey’s aloof look, chic clothing and slim, attractive features animate Steven Soderbergh’s new experimental low-budget film The Girlfriend Experience, which chronicles the life of a very high priced call girl in midtown Manhattan during the fall of 2008. Soderbergh shot his new feature right at the time when fears of the worldwide recession had surfaced, so much of the dialogue in this very contemporary movie is about money—how to get it and how to save it.
Chelsea (Ms. Grey) is clearly superb at acquiring money—she charges $2500 per hour for her services, which go beyond that of the merely physical. As the film carefully establishes, she offers “the girlfriend experience,” spending hours talking, drinking and getting to know her clients, many of whom regard her as a confidant. Her boyfriend Chris, a personal trainer who also befriends his clients, mirrors Chelsea’s working life. Each provides emotional and physical satisfaction to customers, who then go on to deal with the demands of their high-stress daily existences. But the movie suggests that neither Chris nor Chelsea know how to truly satisfy each other.
The oldest profession has always inspired artful storytelling. Where would opera be without La Traviata or Lulu or La dame aux camelias? Or theatre without Mrs. Warren’s Profession or Anna Christie? Or film without Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria or Godard’s Vivre sa vie?
Godard’s French nouvelle vague classic Vivre sa vie starred his then-wife Anna Karina as the prostitute Nana, a name inspired by the scandalous titular heroine in Zola’s acclaimed novel. It’s interesting to know that Sasha Grey considered using Anna Karina as her acting name when she started in the adult movie business.
Shot on the sexy, ultra-cheap RED digital camera with a fractured narrative provided by veteran scenarists Koppelman and Levien, The Girlfriend Experience is like Ms. Grey’s Chelsea: all flash with little substance. The film provides a devastating critique of Chelsea by an “erotic connoisseur” who offers to help her career if she provides him with a sexual encounter. When their exchange proves unsatisfactory, the embittered “connoisseur” blogs that Chelsea is emotionally cold and is trying to appear sophisticated although her appeal is based on her girl-next-door looks. (Their unsatisfactory physical encounter takes place off camera, like all suggested sexual scenes in the film.)
Is that true for the film as well? Is it really a small American indie dressed up to look like a European art film but with nothing major to say? Hate to agree with the sad-sack “connoisseur” but that seems to be the case. The Girlfriend Experience is all dressed up but doesn’t go very far. The story and Ms. Grey are clever but opaque: no reason is given for us to care about her fate.
Is Soderbergh’s “experience” worth $2500 or even a full ticket price at the cinema? No, but it would be fun to watch on DVD. And I suspect that will happen quite soon.