A Harlot High and Low
by Michael Joshua Rowin
The Girlfriend Experience
Dir. Steven Soderbergh, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
Sex plays a severely contradictory role in the oeuvre of Steven Soderbergh. While sex, lies, and videotape, Schizopolis, and Full Frontal—among Soderbergh’s “independent” films—portray sex as commonly pursued by deceitful means and engaged in for cynical reasons, Out of Sight and the Ocean’s franchise—among his Hollywood films—equate sex and its appeal with high-wattage, glossy magazine star power. Due to Soderbergh’s status as a filmmaker who seems more concerned with showing off his director-of-photography skills via technological gimmickry or pure stylization than developing consistent themes, it’s difficult to gauge which representation he believes to be true. Now, The Girlfriend Experience arrives as the first cinematic statement about the current economic crisis, and its exposé of the fantasy-weaving occupation of high-class prostitution and the ethically dubious financial class that employs its services would likewise be one more noncommittal Soderbergh “project” if not for this surprise: it works. Unlike in Bubble, with which it shares many small-scale qualities, Soderbergh’s detachment for once fits the world he depicts, and though The Girlfriend Experience is not a “personal” film in the traditional sense, it nonetheless successfully weds his visual preoccupations to his chosen material (written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien) in a way that feels pertinent, if still intentionally off-putting and distant.
The Girlfriend Experience has already achieved notoriety for starring 21-year-old adult film star Sasha Grey in her first major non-porn role as Chelsea (real name: Christine), escort for wealthy Manhattan wheelers and dealers, but the film itself is more Belle de jour than mature Traci Lords. Soderbergh has cited Red Desert and Cries and Whispers as influences on The Girlfriend Experience; the film’s major European art cinema source, however, seems to be 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Just as Godard employed Marina Vlady’s Parisian prostitute as a handy symbol for Gaullist France’s outer bourgeois prosperity and inner rot, Chelsea fittingly stands in for the alluring glamour and vacuous sexual rewards prized by both America’s privileged business class and those who look on it with envy. Emblematic bourgeois couple Vlady and her mechanic husband in 2 or 3 Things and Chelsea and her personal trainer boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos, one of the film’s many nonprofessional actors) in The Girlfriend Experience also share notable similarities, with the latter pair suitably updated to represent their disposability in relation to those with the money and power to use them. The jumbled, nonlinear episodes are just as sad and absurd as those in Godard’s satire, with Chris pathetically peddling a line of athletic wear to a store that can’t afford to overstock and Chelsea meeting with a sarcastic entrepreneur (film critic Glenn Kenny, in a hilariously sleazy bit) who pitches her involvement in work that borders on white slavery.
But even more illuminating are the uncanny parallels between 2 or 3 Things and The Girlfriend Experience’s suffocating interiors. A colleague recently lauded The Girlfriend Experience’s commentary on Manhattan gentrification—it was shot on location in recently yuppified downtown neighborhoods—but this is knowledge only available to those familiar with the setting: 90 percent of the film takes place indoors. And not just indoors: once again acting as his own D.P., Soderbergh shoots his characters from far off, implements shallow focus to sharpen looming decor, composes frames so that the backs of heads and surrounding objects carefully block them out, lights rooms so softly and pristinely that images which might have mimicked the cool, slick surface glow of Out of Sight, The Limey, and Solaris are instead properly alien and numb. (Where Godard fixed his camera on construction sights as visual evidence of France’s final surrender to capitalism, Soderbergh is obsessed with the tinsel of four-star restaurants and penthouse apartments’ lighting fixtures and mirrors.) The hackneyed “point” of such a style—alienation, et al—is saved by Soderbergh’s inventively disorienting shot-by-shot choices, and a deep, sinister atmosphere becomes central to the materially corrupt surroundings, with Chelsea and Chris’s prosaic adventures in the changing economy jumbled in time but fixed in a strange continuity of uniformly luxurious and deadened spaces.
As much as Soderbergh stays inside, where his characters can play their roles in private, there’s no mentally interior moment in The Girlfriend Experience that even merits comparison to Godard’s coffee cup sequence in 2 or 3 Things, no real moment of philosophical meditation or self-reflection. Chelsea’s intermittent voiceovers are either platitudes divulged to a curious journalist (“Clients want you to be what they want”) or else professional tallies (which clients she’s seen, what transpired, what she wore for the occasion). Her savvy comes from the fact that “nobody does what she does” (as Chris reassures her upon a rival escort’s appearance on the scene) by seeking out those in the business who can handle her promotion and help her start her dream of a legitimate boutique, but she has little romantic or spiritual acumen. She lives her life according to numerology—which ironically places her in the same superstitious boat as her clients who so recklessly rode the stock index and now advise her to invest in gold—and leaves Chris for a first-time patron with an auspicious date of birth. Desired but cared for by the one person she takes for granted—her clients often pay more attention to their business calls than her expensive presence—Chelsea’s is an empty, unsexy existence.
But she’s not entirely vacuous, and in this sense the stunt casting of Grey works well beyond the realm of “good or bad” acting. Grey has called herself an “existentialist” and describes her own films as “performance art” (a friend went so far as to deem Grey “the first meta-porn star”), and it’s this philosophical dressing up of what are ultimately fuck flicks that makes her perfect for the study of the self-possession and perceived sexual confidence that allows someone in her trade to take part in branded and sold transgression. One of the strangest trends in American culture in the past decade has been the romanticization and emulation of pornography by celebrities and common folk alike (where it was once considered embarrassing to watch them at work, for instance, grown men and women now proudly brandish t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Porn Star”), and The Girlfriend Experience plays on the contradictions of our new nonchalance about, even worship of, purchased sex. Grey is beautiful in her fawnlike delicateness, but the almost nudity-free film she now stars in crosses her over to the mainstream in the least lurid manner possible: I doubt anyone will find it titillating when she confesses to submitting to a client’s humiliating pap smear.
Grey also needn’t be a victim to have her persona critiqued. Her inability to emote actually renders her character simultaneously vulnerable and arrogant, and The Girlfriend Experience’s major coup is having Chelsea’s profession mirror Grey’s real-life work, with all its put-on airs of sophistication, and the film’s bridging of the two subtly comments on sex-for-hire’s increasing popular legitimacy. What’s important isn’t that swells will indulge their desire for sex with a hot young woman by paying obscene amounts of money to make the interaction vaguely resemble a genuine relationship—we know that. What’s important is that such behavior is now part of the expected surplus value of the capitalistic system of morality—if Chelsea fails at her boutique she’ll likely bank on a juicy memoir or luck out with a liaison with a high-profile politician, and everyone’ll win. Another way to put it: Chelsea would never exist without her clients, but these days her clients wouldn’t exist without her. Their illusionary work dealing in illusionary money is made tangible only by her services. (This is another surprise, considering Soderbergh has so willingly used his talent to champion all-in-fun avarice— even the supposedly power-to-the-people Erin Brockovich is ultimately about getting real paid).
There are still significant problems with The Girlfriend Experience, especially when it reaches for “movie of the moment” status. There are slapdash pseudo-documentary, Vegas-bound shit-shooting sessions among Chris and his new corporate buddies about the economic free fall and the presidential election, which get lost in an impenetrable volley of badly miked voices and blown-out lighting. There are likewise snatches of dialogue that try to capture currently unfolding political history from a liberal vantage point, but are already dated (Chris to Christine while watching the vice-presidential debate: “If I hear her say ‘maverick’ one more time I’m going to puke.”) And the film’s low point is unfortunately also its parting shot, a scene that couples Chelsea with a corpulent Orthodox Jewish diamond merchant who, right before holding the bra and panty-clad prostitute in a scared, shivering embrace, tells her to vote for McCain. Aided by a disturbing rumbling noise on the soundtrack and an abrupt cut to the end credits, it’s an unsettling image of the stunted male’s need for maternal intimacy from a paid whore, but it’s also a freakish one—after journeying through the sterile playgrounds of entitled yuppies, why end with an unrepresentative Hassid? His sudden appearance feels tacked on, the butt of a cheap joke that finally positions the audience above the film’s characters.
These issues aside, The Girlfriend Experience is one of the few Soderbergh films that makes good on its dare. It’ll likely bore the daylights out of those who won’t know what to do with its arty structure and tone, but for those of us who’ve been consistently let down by his spotty track record of experimentation it’s the most relevant thing he’s done in ages, a challenge to the cultural sanctity of sex and profit, the high-end line of sex for profit, and, most fascinatingly of all, profit for sex.