A Useful Review: The Girlfriend Experience, 2009, dir. Steven Soderbergh

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There are probably specific expectations some might impose upon a film whose lead is a famous and popular porn star; for example, the promise of erotic visuals, the thrill of the voyeurism inherent to watching porn, and of course, chief of them all, the guarantee of smoldering on-screen sex. Why else would you hire Sasha Grey, an adult film star whose body of work includes 161 titles (none of which I can offer here), as the lead in your film about a woman living her life as a high-class escort in New York? Surely, the reasons for doing so are entirely superficial, and the need for such an actress on set comes back to the need for a very genuine depiction of carnal lust.

So it should be said immediately that watching Steven Soderbergh’s film The Girlfriend Experience with such expectations in mind will inevitably lead to disappointment and frustration; this is a sexless film, though not one that is lacking any form of sensuality. Grey is never shown in any explicit, compromising positions. There is only the suggestion of sex to come, coupled with brief glimpses of full-frontal nudity. This may sound somewhat ridiculous on the surface, but Soderbergh’s interest in Grey as his protagonist has more to do with her mind than with her body: Grey is a successful young woman who owns her own agency through which she manages other actresses, and she considers who she is separate from what she does for a living. She approaches sex, and her willingness to exhibit her sexuality for money, with intelligence and business savvy.

So in other words, she’s just like Christine/Chelsea, the young lady who the film focuses on. Chelsea, we learn, also works in the business of selling sex, yes, but as the title infers she provides so much more than just the chance for a physical connection. She gives her clients the illusion of being in a relationship, the opportunity to live out the fantasy of being one half of a complete, functioning couple; it’s as much about the experience of having a girlfriend as it is about feeling like a boyfriend. The clients talk with her; she kids back with them and teases them, and listens to their stories and their advice on who to vote for or how to invest her money. She smiles at their jokes and nods understandingly at their worldly observations. Chelsea does not peddle cheap pleasures, but instead allows her clients to feign something more substantial. Indeed, the thrill of sex appears to be sort of icing on the cake, or at least something like a cover-up that allows her clients to keep from having to state that really, they’re just isolated or lonely and simply want someone to talk to.

If the men she sees mask their real intentions for hiring her, then so too does Chelsea put up her own guards throughout the film. Even when she’s alone with her boyfriend, Chris, a personal trainer who wants to market himself as much as Chelsea does, we’re never given much indication that we’re seeing the real Chelsea. (It’s easy to wonder if Chris is a very drawn-out boyfriend experience; they don’t have chemistry together that is any more meaningful than that which she shares with her clients.) When Chelsea is interviewed by real-life journalist Mark Jacobson, he wonders the same thing: Who is Chelsea, honestly? He’s not even sure if he’s seeing the real Chelsea as he sits across a table from her in one of Tom Colicchio’s swank Craft brand restaurants. And of course, Chelsea isn’t cluing him in on whether he’s seeing her real self or the version of herself that she markets– she sidesteps his questions with grace and ease, always answering them without actually having to do so.

At one point in the film, Chelsea is contacted by a new client visiting the city for the weekend. There is almost an instant connection between the two as they talk over the phone. It’s the first time that we actually get a chance to see the truth of this young woman, and the transformation between the Chelsea we’ve seen previously and the Chelsea that surfaces around this particular client is rather remarkable. Here Grey makes Chelsea vulnerable and human; when she laughs at an anecdote that the man relates to her, she is not feigning emotion for her company’s benefit. When she receives an intentionally negative review of her services on an Internet message board (whose author does not engage her services), she all but breaks down in front of him. Her mask finally slips.

Grey is not be ready for the broader world of acting yet, but describing her performance as unrefined would belie just how perfect she is for the role. She strikes a balance between her persona as a self-made business woman and entrepreneur and someone who, like her clients, wants to have a genuine girlfriend experience of her own. Grey projects confidence and self-assuredness combined with emotional appeal and plays the character so captivatingly well that it’s natural to suppose that she’s self-allegorizing.

This is a challenging and urgent, immediate movie. This is not so much due to how Chelsea treats sexuality as a commodity, and more because of how the film speaks to how we all sell ourselves no matter who we are. At the end of the day, Chelsea, her boyfriend, and even her clients are trying to project an image; the moments where Chelsea wears her emotions openly are not just her only genuine moments, they’re the film’s only genuine moments. Taking place in the midst of one of the worst economic crises of America’s history, The Girlfriend Experience isn’t just about the lengths we go to to fend off our own loneliness, it’s also about the defenses we harness to protect ourselves from outside harm.

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