The Girlfriend Experience (Magnolia Pictures) is one of Stephen Soderbergh's sketchbook pictures, the experimental one-offs he directs in between blockbusters. Unlike Soderbergh's last experiment, the four-hour biopic Che, this one is small in every sense: 77 minutes long, shot on digital video, improvised from a bare-bones script, and cast entirely with unknowns. Well, unknown in some circles: The film stars Sasha Grey, a 21-year-old porn actress who has won a raft of AVN adult-film awards, including best three-way sex scene in 2007 and best oral scene in 2008. (I was rooting for Julie Christie for that last one, but whatever.)
Despite its meager production values, The Girlfriend Experience looks sleek and appealing; it takes place in the same copper-toned cocoon of poshness that envelops the Ocean's Eleven franchise, as Grey's character, $2,000-an-hour call girl Chelsea, flits in and out of four-star restaurants and designer boutiques in Manhattan. Grey isn't exactly an actress, but her aura of impenetrable blankness makes her a curiously entrancing protagonist. Chelsea logs each transaction in her computer diary in between meetings, detailing her designer outfits in an affectless voice-over: "I wore a Michael Kors dress and shoes and La Perla lingerie underneath." Her job is to provide her clients not just with sex but with the full-service "girlfriend experience": They take in movies, drink wine, have (stilted) conversations, and share breakfast before she hops in a limo and heads to her next meeting. Fans of Sasha Grey's oeuvre will be disappointed to learn that this unrated movie contains no sex at all—the most we get is a seconds-long glimpse of Grey's (refreshingly unaugmented) nude body.
Chelsea's live-in boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), is a personal trainer who's fine with his girlfriend's highly lucrative profession until she decides to go away for the weekend with a client she's started to care about. The outcome of that plotline—will Chelsea go through with the trip? Will she lose Chris if she does?—is the closest the movie comes to suspense. Otherwise, its structure is episodic and loosely achronological. A reporter (played by journalist Mark Jacobson) tries unsuccessfully to get past Chelsea's mask of composure. A porn-site webmaster convinces her to sleep with him in exchange for free publicity, then posts a snidely negative "review" of her sexual performance. (In a sly joke on Soderbergh's part, this sleazebag is played, superbly, by movie critic Glenn Kenny.) Periodically, Soderbergh cuts to a scene of Chris aboard a private jet to Vegas on a junket financed by some wealthy clients. Though many individual scenes are sharply observed, it amounts to the same observation over and over: Chelsea, Chris, and all their clients are whores, trapped in a transactional economy that isolates and dehumanizes even their most intimate encounters.
The Girlfriend Experience is a period piece set in a very recent period. It takes place during the last few weeks before the 2008 election, at the beginning of the economic collapse. ("If I hear the word maverick one more time, I'm going to throw up," complains one character. "Buy gold," another counsels Chelsea as they take off their clothes.) Chelsea's clients are bankers, screenwriters, international businessmen—all, like her, professional hustlers busy inflating expectations for their product. Many of the johns (and, at times, Chelsea and Chris themselves) seem like miserable, self-deluded people, but Soderbergh's intent isn't to satirize or pity them. He surveys the food chain of capitalist predation with a cool, dispassionate eye. Though the result is thematically slight, it's structurally sophisticated enough to reward a second viewing (or at least, unlike Grey's previous work, to be watched all the way through).
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