The film is almost designed to be a time-capsule artifact, a vivisection of America in late 2008, ready to be unearthed and dissected in some future economics, political science or cinema studies course (because The Girlfriend Experience is about all three). On the other hand, it’s so timely, so deliberately of-the-moment, that it’s possible the film is sacrificing timelessness for the documentary-like rush of immediacy.
Soderbergh is a quirky, unpredictable director of extremes who is as likely to make a four-and-a-half hour Che Guevara biopic as he is a fluffy Ocean’s Eleven sequel as he is a meandering, barely-feature-length art-film ramble. He makes big movies for big audiences that say nothing and small movies for small audiences that say a lot, and The Girlfriend Experience falls proudly into the latter distinction.
Taking the title from its lead character, a high-class escort (21-year-old adult film star Sasha Grey in her first major non-porn role) who provides the illusion of relationship intimacy along with sex, The Girlfriend Experience takes a few of its ideas about prostitution as a microcosm for a capitalist state in which we’re all whoring ourselves from Jean-Luc Godard movies like My Life to Live (which Soderbergh instructed Grey to watch prior to filming) and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.
But importantly, Soderbergh modifies Godard’s dated Maoist tracts into the framework of contemporary, recession-era Manhattan, where everyday citizens are struggling to get by in a time where everything, from call girls selling their bodies to personal trainers selling their expertise to street performers playing for tips, is a transaction.
Even the vices we used to consider recession-proof are in danger. Imbued with a killer body and a girl-next-door charm, Grey’s Chelsea would never have to worry about money five or 10 years ago. Today, she worries, as much as her gym-trainer boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), about job security and competition, spending a portion of the movie trying to build up her business brand.
Most of her johns, too, are businessmen watching their own wealth and staying power disintegrate alongside a plummeting stock market, and when the sex is over, Chelsea has to listen to all of them recount their economic woes. Sex isn’t an escapist fantasy anymore; part of the girlfriend experience is turning the hooker into a friend or therapist.
The same debates affect the peripheral characters, too. Soderbergh intercuts Chelsea’s client meetings with the political discussions of a handful of businessmen on a plane to Vegas. This being a film shot in the summer of 2008, everyone is, of course, talking about the impending election and economic bailout. The political coverage is so saturating that one client tells Chelsea he just wants to turn it off, and, in a moment of couch cuddling, Chris comments, “If I hear the word ‘maverick’ one more time, I’m going to throw up.”
As a character, Chelsea is an ironing-board-flat, insecure sponge with a false air of culture and sophistication. It’s safe to say that Grey contains the culture her character lacks. She’s no average porn star, her name being a combined reference of the frontman of the industrial band KMFDM and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. She originally wanted her stage name to be Anna Karina, in honor of Godard’s lover and muse. She’s a hip porn star, and her acting here is not bad, either.
It takes a little while to realize that Soderbergh’s film is non-linear. In particular, a story line about Chelsea leaving Chris for a mysterious client to whom she feels a connection is presented in a scattershot timeline that some will find as pretentious as the director’s muddled, uncompromising Cinemascope framing. But it’s a perfect way to convey Chelsea’s world, a revolving door of revisited clients who, if not exactly control time, at least dictate Chelsea’s day-by-day chronology.
Not everybody will like The Girlfriend Experience, and who knows if it will be remembered 50 years from now. But when young people struggling through the recession now want to show their future children what it was like to live in the American upper middle class in 2008-2009, this is the lesson.
John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. Cast: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos; Director: Steven Soderbergh; Distributor: Magnolia; Rated: R. Opens: Friday; Venue: Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave.