A few months after releasing Che, his four-and-a-half hour Che Guevera biopic, Steven Soderbergh returns with The Girlfriend Experience, a 77-minute long take on five days in the life of Chelsea (porn star Sasha Grey), a high-end Manhattan escort. The director is fond of mixing it up; his resume includes big-budget blockbusters (the Ocean's series), Oscar-baiting star vehicles (Erin Brockovich) and indie fare (The Limey, Full Frontal, Bubble).
As Soderbergh said at a Tribeca Film Festival panel following his latest, "movies need to have either absolute perspective or none at all." He called The Girlfriend Experience "a myopic movie" about a very narrow breed of New Yorkers doing very specific things in October of 2008. And while The Girlfriend Experience represents a downsizing of budget, scope and star power for the director, his ambition is undiminished.
The movie's pinpoint topicality comes not only from its protagonist's resemblance to a certain governor-toppling working girl, but from its production coinciding with last fall's Wall Street meltdown. Pillow talk between Chelsea and her clients revolves around crumbling portfolios, bailouts and cautious investment strategies.
But fiscal panic hasn't hurt her client's willingness to shell out. Dates occur in swank downtown lounges and hotels, the camera lingering on their facades in establishing shots. Chelsea name drops designers and upscale restaurants, Patrick Bateman-style. "I met with Philip on October 5th and 6th. I wore a Michael Kors dress and shoes with La Perla lingerie underneath and diamond stud earrings."
Grey's deadpan delivery is coolly appealing. "During lunch he talked about the financial crisis. And when we got back to the room, he immediately got on the phone and ordered some Macallan 25. I put on a Kiki de Montparnasse corset, panties and gloves. After he got off the phone, we made out for awhile," Chelsea's voiceover narration tells us as she commits a tryst to paper. (A businessman suggests she write a memoir: "There's a huge market out there for that these days.")
Soderbergh called The Girlfriend Experience "a movie about transactions," with the film's Great Recession backdrop exposing their fragility. Chelsea sleeps with "the hobbyist", an escort connoisseur, in hopes of a favorable, profit-boosting review on his website. Her real boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), is a personal trainer often seen haggling with clients looking for their own form of physical wish-fulfillment. Everything and everyone is for sale. "If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn't be paying you," Chelsea explains to a journalist (in a whole different sort of transaction).
The hobbyist criticizes Chelsea for her "flat affect." But Grey's dry monotone and vacant stare only strengthen the actor's performance; they bring the character's odd girlish giggle and flash of life behind the eyes into sharp relief. Soderbergh praised Grey for the "Zen" she brought to Chelsea. (He knew a porn star "in command of sexual situations" would fit the part.) But it's the almost-reluctant emotions that manage to break through Chelsea's cool façade (all of them outside of the bedroom) that keep you watching.
Domestic scenes between Chelsea and Chris are bathed in warm amber hues, but offer no more emotional warmth than the many hotel flings, here tinted a clinical blue. The pair's selfish indifference to one another suggests that the emotional toll of "the real thing" is just as taxing as paid simulations and truncated "experiences."
Character anomie aside, The Girlfriend Experience is too funny to be cynical and too broad an indictment of consumer culture to be a didactic slam on the world's oldest profession. For Soderbergh, prostitution is no different than investment banking, which is no different than filmmaking. (Moderator Caryn James asked Soderbergh if he felt he'd prostituted himself with the Ocean's movies; he diffused the awkwardness by saying all of his movies required him to sell his time and ideas to executives.)
The Girlfriend Experience might not rake it in like Soderbergh's mainstream efforts. But the hordes who queued up for the three Tribeca screenings indicate a collective interest in the gilded underbelly of Wall Street's good old days, when, as the director said "money became a national fetish."
Porn is another national pastime (Soderbergh noted that Utah has the highest porn traffic rate in America) and Grey's stature in that industry will likely draw many one-handed keyboard tappers to the arthouse.
Will they be disappointed with the lack of onscreen sex in the movie? "I excel at undercutting expectations," Soderbergh shrugged. He hoped that people desensitized by Grey's graphic pornography would be jolted by the inverse, saying that "fantasy is what you can't have."
With money dried up and the elicit thrill of sex dimmed by accessibility, the confluence of the two in The Girlfriend Experience make it the ultimate post-crash fantasy.