The Girlfriend Experience Review

Following Soderbergh’s epic Che, which told the expansive story of Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution, Soderbergh made a much smaller film, a film that focused on a New York call girl (played by adult film star Sasha Grey) and the small but fascinating world that surrounds her.

Grey plays a character who is referred to by the names Christine and Chelsea (I shall use Christine for convenience). She is an expensive call girl who does not just supply her clients with quick sexual thrills but offers ‘the girlfriend experience’. This involves a deeper and more complex service in which in addition to the sex, Christine plays the part of a companion, someone to talk to and spend time with. Christine is clearly highly paid for her services and her clients are connected men with wealth and power. She also has a somewhat more traditional relationship with her boyfriend Chris, who is a personal trainer and also has well paid professional clients who he also gives a personalised service to.

The film is set in 2008, roughly a month before the US presidential elections and during the beginnings of the economic crisis that struck much of the world. The film was largely improvised and features many performances by so-called ‘non-actors’. During filming Soderbergh ensured newspapers were delivered to the set every day and scattered around the set, helping make the film incredibly up-to-date and relevant but to that precise moment in time. In many ways, The Girlfriend Experience is a modern period piece, it captures a moment in time with minute detail but unlike period projects this film was made at the time rather than in retrospect. The conversations throughout focus heavily on the issues of that time, with characters discussing the upcoming elections, who to vote for, how to safeguard their money and what the future might hold for the political and economic climate. It is worth noting the similarity between Christine and her clients, she looks them in the eye and lies, and as we have found from the stories surrounding the recession, people such as Bernie Madoff were doing the very same thing.

On one level the film is about hyper-consumerism, with Christine representing an extremely expensive commodity, a service for the super rich. She faces problems in her career from the free-falling economy, competition from rival call girls, a slimy reviewer – played by former Premiere film critic Glenn Kenny – who she needs to impress in order to keep a good reputation, and the realisation that she needs to diversify to provide a future for herself. The film explores this delicate structure of consumerism collapsing, not in the emotionally dramatic way that Hollywood audiences are used to but in a more cold subtle way. Christine and Chris, the similiar names I am sure are deliberate, are both attempting to survive in their service of the wealthy in their respective careers. They both try to push their clients for more as their clients slowly back away and in the failing economy their services are more and more an extravagance that is not truly needed.

Central to the success of the film is the performance by Sasha Grey, a performance that I feel has perhaps been misunderstood by many critics. At one point in the film, in a damning attack, Christine is ‘reviewed’ and the reviewer criticises her “affectless blankness” alluding to the lack of emotion she shows and the almost vacant stare that she permanently exhibits. This is both a description of Christine’s performance with clients and of Grey’s performance in the film and it is something that is crucial to the character. There is a blankness to what Christine does as she calmly excepts what she does in a way that would probably shock many people.

This obviously mirrors Grey’s other career as an adult film star, a job that many may feel has a lot of similarities to prostitution but also one that has a lot of similarities to acting. It is this blending of the three jobs, prostitution, mainstream acting, and pornography that add a further fascinating level to the film. Soderbergh also plays with this concept by not showing scenes of sex and with almost no nudity the film. Soderbergh did not choose Sasha Grey because he was worried about another actress being unwilling to do nude scenes, it was almost certainly more a calculated choice based on her career. It was also, it seems, a result of meeting Grey and being intrigued by her oft reported intellect and interests in art and philosophy.

Sasha Grey is not the stereotypical bimbo that many people may expect from a adult film star. Her chosen name, her real name actually being Marina Ann Hantzis, is allegedly inspired by industrial band KMFDM and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and she even flirted with the idea of being known as Anna Karina. This is a particularly interesting choice considering the conceptual interest Jean-Luc Godard, Karina’s husband, had in prostitution and also the roles that Karina played, such as the exotic dancer in Une Femme est Une Femme. It is this apparent depth to Grey’s interests that has led artists such as Richard Kern and Steven Soderbergh to work with her and it will hopefully help her move into more roles that stretch her more as a serious actress and at just 21 she could be an interesting actress to watch.

Another strong point to the film is the visual style which is clean and expertly shot using the RedOne digital camera. This is very appropriate for the film, with its sharp, clean interiors, the modern consumerist theme. There were also most likely benefits to shooting on digital, considering the constraints of the shoot. The lighting in the film is almost entirely natural, something that would have been hard to achieve with film, and with the improvised dialogue, the allegedly seven page script and the short shooting schedule, the freedom of the RedOne would have had incredible advantages.

Shot for a little over a million dollars and many of the work on the film done by Soderbergh himself, under his usual aliases, The Girlfriend Experience is in many ways an experiment with Soderbergh taking a simple idea and freely exploring it. The result though is not a simple film. The Girlfriend Experience is an interestingly layered film and a film that I am sure will seem ever more significant in the future as a film that captured a moment.