The Girlfriend Experience

In escort lingo, "GFE" stands for "girlfriend experience." It's a value-added sales tool used by call girls to maximize their hourly rates by promising something more than just sex without the complications of an actual relationship. In some cases, sex is not even required. What is required is that the experience offer intimacy and companionship. This can be as real as the escort wants or as much of a role-playing experience as a night at the theater. For some escorts the sex can be enjoyable, while for others it remains an out-of-body experience. That said, this is a film that is only marginally about sex; it's real subject is business. One can argue cynically that all human relationships are a form of transaction. Except for the unconditional love of a parent, all other forms require a fair give and take – an exchange of services built right into the marriage contract, which is sealed with "I Do." Using the McCain/Obama Presidential race as a backdrop, The Girlfriend Experience sets its focus tightly on the day-to-day existence of a "sophisticated" escort named Chelsea, played by adult-film star Sasha Grey. Outside of that, there is very little plot, per se. The film unfolds in a freeform, non-linear manner that shows us details of Chelsea's life out of context at first, slowly peeling back the layers of her world. We learn that she is very well paid with many regular clients and that she has a real-life boyfriend, a physical trainer named Chris (Chris Santos) who knows what she does and is fine with it. They've been together for 18 months and things seem to be going well. That is, until Chelsea finds a sudden and intimate personal connection with one of her clients.

Every character talks bank bailouts, costs, salaries, expansion, and the merits of gold, even while engaging in sex. Chelsea is trying to upgrade her website and to get a good review from a sleazy online "pimp" (Glenn Kenney) who rates escorts on his own website. She is as concerned as everyone else about the current economical slump and what it will do for her business. People suggest that she look into opening a boutique, but she wants to remain anonymous. That's what her clients want, too. These men may desire a GFE, but what they really want is a servant, not a girlfriend. Using her for sex, to demonstrate power, or to have someone to talk to, they do not offer anything of themselves to Chelsea except money. When they get what they've paid for, they want her to simply slip away with no attachments or complications. This is the nature of her work.

The Girlfriend Experience is director Steven Soderbergh's best film in years. It's a "documentary of a fiction" that stays on the surface. Scenes are not staged for dramatic conflict, but are instead casually observed. Over the last 10 years Soderbergh has developed a very distinct visual style, which could be derisively described as commercial photography. Shots are mostly static and feature props and people placed in very specific relations to each other in order to tease the eye. In commercial photography this would be to suggest a romantic getaway, but to focus on the expensive wine in the foreground. The effect is alienating and cold – the real world as seen in GQ or Vogue, in which the human subjects compete for attention with their possessions. While this made his previous film, the two-part Che, seriously difficult to get through without heavy doses of caffeine, it works much better here, as the style feels appropriate to the subject.

Sasha Grey is icy on screen in a way she is not in her other, less mainstream, work. But this creates a certain hypnotic power as Soderbergh trains his lens on her so intently, it's as though he is trying to see through her. As much as the journalist tries to get her to drop the mask, we, too, want to see her vulnerability, to know what really makes her tick. Soderbergh is wise not to take this too far. There is a single moment when she gives us a sense of what her life must really be like, and Grey plays this moment very well – it's just a momentary slip of the mask, and then it's right back on and the human being is whisked away, just out of reach.

There is an unfinished feel to the film that Soderbergh has been moving towards for years. His films are not meant to be fully realized masterpieces, but what director Jean-Luc Godard once termed "attempts" at a film. Soderbergh is sketching an idea of a film about an escort and her icy world and exploring its possibilities onscreen. It's a work in progress, except that it's no longer in progress. Soderbergh shot the film himself under his usual pseudonym "Peter Andrews" and using the much ballyhooed RED digital cameras he also employed on Che. While Che occasionally suffered from images that seemed too "clean," the look is perfect for the antiseptic world of this film. The movie looks absolutely beautiful on DVD.

A brief HDNET featurette on the film is included, and it is as informative as a four-minute sales piece is ever likely to be. But this is made up for by the commentary track between Soderbergh and Sasha Grey. All of Soderbergh's commentaries have been excellent and have always involved his collaborators in very informative discussions, and this is no exception. Soderbergh realizes that he has an intriguing persona in Grey, one who is very well read in a number of subjects, including film, and completely contradicts any preconceived notions of what an adult actress may or may not be. He encourages her to talk about her experience making the film and her feelings about the similarities between her world of adult film and that of the escort she played onscreen. Their discussion is worth the price of the DVD in itself.

The final extra included on the disc is Soderbergh's alternate cut of the film. While editing, Soderbergh realized that he had shot so much footage that many scenes could've been cut in different ways, and that alternate scenes could be used instead. That said, this "alternate cut" isn't really better or worse than the original release, just slightly different here and there. As I said earlier, Soderbergh is making works in progress, and here you get two slightly different works for the price of one.