Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, The Girlfriend Experience, may be plotted around the sex trade and feature noted porn starlet Sasha Gray in the lead role, but it’s not about sex as much as it’s about power.
Chelsea is a prostitute, though she prefers the term escort, as do her clients. Regardless, she exchanges sex for money—and lots of it. Girls this pretty don’t come cheap, especially in Manhattan, especially after the great Wall Street reckoning of 2008.
Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, The Girlfriend Experience, may be plotted around the sex trade and feature noted porn starlet Sasha Gray in the lead role, but it’s not about sex as much as it’s about power. Specifically, the exchange of power between people.
Gray, who plays Chelsea, is the film’s locus. She seems to view all of her interactions with people as an equation with numbers to be ticked off, added or subtracted. Laughing at a balding John’s horrible joke? Plus one. Letting him have sex with her? Minus two. Getting a fat wad of cash for her troubles? Plus five.
The problem, however, as we soon find out through the film’s disjointed and lyrical storytelling, is that Chelsea uses this methodology all the time. She analyzes and compartmentalizes her life, always weighing her decisions, even if that means hurting her boyfriend or never revealing anything about her true self. Sometimes, like when she falls for a client, she miscalculates.
Given its historical backdrop—the movie is constantly referring to the 2008 election and the recent economic collapse—The Girlfriend Experience has shades of allegory. The men she sleeps with are all from Wall Street or Hollywood, constantly complaining about money, yet they’re pouring it into a pursuit that will only momentarily make them feel better. They’re outrageously spending their declining power capital.
Soderbergh’s quick and dirty cinema verite style—using natural lighting, cheap-looking digital equipment, and expressive, if unrefined, framing—supports the film’s fragmented depiction. We get the plot pieces all out of order, which takes away from the story-related drama but amplifies its underlying themes.
As a follow-up to the painstakingly crafted and laboriously detailed epic Che, this 78-minute philosophical thinker proves at least one thing about Soderbergh: he’s willing to take risks. And in this case, the results are worth it. No other modern filmmaker moves so easily between cinematic modes, from high Hollywood to quiet, independent needling.
Speaking of risks, casting 21-year-old porn star Sasha Gray was a big one. (Obviously, she’s mostly starred in films that use the words cock or ass in their titles. Maybe Fuck For Dollars 3 could be viewed as a kind of prequel?)
Sure, Gray understands better than almost anyone the trade off between power and sex. And like her character, she’s a self-styled high-class girl doing a low-class thing. But porn acting is an entirely different beast than film acting. It involves a different sort of concentration.
Considering that, Gray has mastered a sort of bland blankness that serves her role as Chelsea well. I wouldn’t call it “good” acting, but it is effective. She is an emotive blank slate, a cipher that we are unable to crack. She seems like half a person, partially submerged in a murk that acts as a barrier against some hard, unknowable truth.
In the film, a journalist writing a story about high-class call girls interviews Chelsea. He moseys around the business for a while, but eventually tells her that he’s most interested in finding out about who the real person is behind her mask. She tells him that’s not really possible, that she won’t let that happen.
But here’s the primary tension behind The Girlfriend Experience: If you’re never willing to let the real person out, at some point, doesn’t it cease to exist?