The title of The Girlfriend Experience is a reference to the services provided by Chelsea (Sasha Grey) the film’s lead. She’s a prostitute, a high-class whore, a call girl, label her what you will. But Chelsea’s job is more than sex, she attempts to provide an experience, a real life simulation for her clients of what it might be like to have her as their girl. They take her out to coffee, movies, expensive dinners or they simply stay home and talk. Sometimes there’s sex, often there is, but not always. Some guys quite literally, just want a hug.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film follows Chelsea in non-linear fashion around town and through her life. She has a real boyfriend, whom she’s lived with for more than a year and who understands and accepts what she does for a living. She has clients, all of them wealthy beyond belief. She has ambition, to make something of herself, to fulfill her full potential, assuming she ever figures out what that is. At first The Girlfriend Experience almost seems like Soderbergh’s attempt to envision the current economic crisis through the lens of the world’s oldest profession. Chelsea’s wealthy clients moan about the economy and sound genuinely frightened about the future... before bedding her. Sex doesn't wash away their fears though. Next morning at breakfast they engage always willing Chelsea in conversation about the bailout. Buy gold, they suggest. They talk endlessly about lost revenue and unload their financial problems to her, wondering openly how much longer they’ll be able to stay solvent as the whole thing goes to hell. It’s a fascinating way to look at the political and economic climate, but it’s a tact that Soderbergh eventually abandons.
Instead he changes tracks to being an ultimately futile attempt to understand Chelsea’s personal relationships. We follow around her boyfriend as he hustles his own clients. He’s a trainer at a local gym. We watch him hanging out with new friends, on a plane headed towards a wild weekend in Vegas. None of this really has any payoff and unfortunately, I’m not sure it really does much to help us understand Chelsea either. She remains cold, distant, and the driven admirable woman we met at the beginning slowly morphs into sort of a bitch.
It’s hard to blame Sasha Grey for the film’s ultimate futility. She started her career in porn and continues to work in the adult industry. It’s somewhat strange that, since Soderbergh went out of his way to cast an actress comfortable with on screen sex for his movie about prostitution, that the film actually contains very little real sex and nudity. Clearly he saw something in her that had nothing to do with her notable porn career. Maybe he was right. When it comes to line reading her abilities are questionable, but it’s hard to deny her physical, comfortable appeal on screen. Soderbergh’s camera loves every inch of her. Grey is beautiful, at ease, and while her delivery is at times a little flat there’s also something strangely genuine about it. She gets this character, maybe in some ways she is this character. Sasha Grey isn’t the actress this movie deserves, but maybe she’s the actress it needs.
The Girlfriend Experience is not the kind of movie everyone should see. It’s another one of those experimental Soderbergh movies, the films he does to apologize to critics for all those crummy Oceans pictures. Obviously he thinks he’s doing something of substance. I’m not entirely convinced, for me it never connected, but it’s full of elegant, well-thought out imagery and visually, it really works. Whether there’s anything more here will probably depend on how it’s approached by you, the viewer.