The Girlfriend Experience
2009, R, 77 min. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Philip Eytan, David Levien, Glenn Kenny, Mark Jacobson.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 22, 2009
Once upon a time, diamonds may have been a girl’s best friend, but these days a woman might find it better to invest her own earned cash in gold and other commodities. That’s one of the best pieces of advice picked up by Chelsea (Grey), a $2,000-an-hour Manhattan escort who sells the “girlfriend experience,” a complete package in which her impeccable grooming, wide knowledge, and conversational ability make her a desirable companion for dinner and a movie prior to the inevitable sex. In the opening scenes, we listen as she discusses the film Man on Wire with that night’s date before getting advice on financial investments over a nightcap before bed. Life is a series of transactions, director Soderbergh seems to be telling us in this movie, shot in quick, DV-cam style (by Soderbergh under his Peter Andrews pseudonym) during the weeks leading up to the November 2008 presidential election and the U.S. economic free fall. The Girlfriend Experience, like Soderbergh’s 2005 film, Bubble, was made for Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment, as part of a six-picture deal to produce low-budget, digital films that would premiere simultaneously in multiple platforms. As with Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience uses nonprofessional actors, aside from lead Grey, who is the acclaimed star of more than 80 porn films and here debuts in her first “nonadult” role. Also in keeping with Bubble, which takes place among workers in an Ohio doll factory, Soderbergh’s new film is interested in labor arrangements and working practices. However, he has few ideas regarding the commodification of sex that haven’t been heard and seen before. What is original is Soderbergh’s filmmaking gestalt, which puts us in Chelsea’s designer heels for a few days. The handheld camera and imperfect angles help us to see things from her perspective, and her push, despite her success, to improve her website, career, and investment portfolio seems little different than the interests of businessmen whose private jet rides to Las Vegas we also witness throughout the film. As with many of Soderbergh’s films, orderly continuity is thrown out the window in favor of a more cut-and-paste narrative that leads us through the story with nontemporal connections. Chelsea’s live-in boyfriend, who is OK with her job, also wants to improve his lot as a trainer by designing workout attire. This desire to improve one’s position leads to the film’s funniest sequence, in which Chelsea visits with the Erotic Connoisseur (played with gross panache by film critic Glenn Kenny), who writes online reviews of call girls. In another sequence that is returned to throughout the film, real-world writer Mark Jacobson is seen interviewing Chelsea in a restaurant about a story he wants to do about the “real” woman behind the girlfriend illusion. “If they really wanted you to be yourself,” she says, “they wouldn’t be paying you.” I wonder if we’re all engaging in something similar every time we hand over admission money at a theatre’s ticket window.