The Therapist Experience: The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience movie poster


Steven Soderbergh’s The Girl­friend Expe­ri­ence is a low-fi, par­tial­ly impro­vised pro­duc­tion loose­ly asso­ci­at­ed with his peri­od­ic palate-cleans­ing exper­i­ments includ­ing Schizopo­lis, Full Frontal, K Street, and Bub­ble. Work­ing with real loca­tions and rel­a­tive­ly cheap cam­eras, this class of thrifty pro­duc­tions allows Soder­bergh a rapid turn­around from con­cep­tion to fin­ished prod­uct. In the case of Schizopo­lis, the low­er price tag allot­ted a cer­tain amount of cre­ative free­dom for uncom­fort­able auto­bi­og­ra­phy. But Soder­bergh is also able to bring time­li­er sub­ject mat­ter to the­aters more quick­ly than most fea­ture films can man­age, delayed as they are by the mon­u­men­tal amount of fund­ing and team effort it takes to make and mar­ket one. Even the music is eco­nom­i­cal — most of it diegetic, per­formed onscreen by street buskers, but also incor­po­rat­ing a cool score by Ross God­frey.

The Great Reces­sion and Bush’s Octo­ber 2008 bank bailout hang over every­thing. Soder­bergh beat oth­er films fea­tur­ing char­ac­ters beset by unem­ploy­ment and pover­ty, includ­ing Wendy & Lucy, Frozen Riv­er, and espe­cial­ly Wall Street 2: Mon­ey Nev­er Sleeps. The sex trade is just a tit­il­lat­ing hook for the greater theme of com­merce itself, and the way free­lance indi­vid­u­als mar­ket them­selves in order to make a liv­ing. The high-class escort Chris­tine (Sasha Grey) is noth­ing more than a small busi­ness own­er, a hook­er Joe the Plumber.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend ExperienceHigh-class escort Chris­tine (Sasha Grey) is a hook­er Joe the Plumber

Ter­mi­nol­o­gy is very impor­tant. “Call girl” is allowed, but “pros­ti­tute” is most cer­tain­ly nev­er used. The phrase “the girl­friend expe­ri­ence” is pro­fes­sion­al lin­go used by call girls to describe ser­vice that goes beyond mere sex. The movie depicts very lit­tle nudi­ty or sex, and we’re thank­ful­ly spared a humil­i­at­ing expe­ri­ence in which she trades sex for a pos­i­tive online review from a scum­bag (Glenn Ken­ny) who has grant­ed him­self the pow­er to destroy or boost escorts’ careers.

The film opens with an image of a mod­ern work of art hang­ing on a gallery wall, com­prised large­ly of dull, flat­tened, reflec­tive met­al — just like Chris­tine her­self. Whether Grey’s blank per­for­mance is delib­er­ate choice or an expres­sion of her lim­it­ed act­ing abil­i­ties, it fits the char­ac­ter. While Chris­tine is a savvy busi­ness­woman con­cerned with self-pro­mo­tion and max­i­miz­ing her income, her busi­ness is entire­ly in the ful­fill­ment of oth­ers’ wish­es, up to a point, for a fee. She has goals and desires, but telling­ly, Chris­tine defers even her din­ner orders to men. The only thing that seems to arouse her is Per­son­ol­o­gy, a Sci­en­tol­ogy-esque vari­a­tion of new age hokum astrol­o­gy that she uses to guide both per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al deci­sions. It seems a big­ger haz­ard to her hap­pi­ness and suc­cess than her pro­fes­sion.

The eco­nom­ic cli­mate may be bad, but Chris­tine and her boyfriend live in a swanky apart­ment adorned with their art col­lec­tion. Her clients are most­ly financiers, liv­ing luxe lifestyles but made anx­ious by the finan­cial calami­ty to the point of impo­tence. They vent their pan­ic to her while she patient­ly lis­tens and asks soft­ball ques­tions. She always makes a point to ask her clients how their wives and chil­dren are doing; not to shame them, but out of a kind of polite deco­rum that some­how val­i­dates what they are doing with her. She has vari­a­tions of the same staid con­ver­sa­tion with her own boyfriend: “It’s good to see you too. How was your day?” Some­times her clients are so worked up they don’t even want sex, just some­one to lis­ten. So what she pro­vides might some­times be bet­ter described as The Ther­a­pist Expe­ri­ence. In the unex­pect­ed­ly touch­ing final scene, she meets a favorite client in less glam­orous cir­cum­stances than we’ve seen before, and ful­fills his needs with a ten­der­ness she hasn’t pre­vi­ous­ly demon­strat­ed, even for her own lover.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend ExperienceChris­tine (Sasha Grey) pro­vides The Ther­a­pist Expe­ri­ence… for a price

The sto­ry is told through mul­ti­ple lay­ers of nar­ra­tion. Chris­tine keeps a func­tion­al­ly dry jour­nal of her appoint­ments, keep­ing track of her var­i­ous ersatz rela­tion­ships, the brands of cloth­ing she wore (down to the lin­gerie), where they dined, what movie they saw, whether or not they had sex. In a sec­ond lay­er of nar­ra­tion, a jour­nal­ist inter­views her for an piece he’s writ­ing on call girls. He finds her inter­est­ing in that she’s the only escort he has met that is in a seri­ous rela­tion­ship. The issue is raised as if it were the key ques­tion of the movie, but the theme falls by the way­side to make way for exam­i­na­tions of the ways that peo­ple sell them­selves in a dif­fi­cult eco­nom­ic cli­mate.

Her boyfriend Chris (Chris San­tos) is a phys­i­cal train­er, anoth­er pro­fes­sion that val­ues youth and physique. While Chris­tine tries to expand her escort busi­ness by com­mis­sion­ing a web­site, and solic­it­ing reviews on seedy inter­net mes­sage boards. All the while she hopes to remain anony­mous so she can even­tu­al­ly finance and launch a legit­i­mate bou­tique. Mean­while, her boyfriend is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly try­ing to expand his own busi­ness. Like Chris­tine, he is his own boss while work­ing in an estab­lished sys­tem that resists free agents. His most suc­cess­ful tac­tic to upgrade his clients into longer, more lucra­tive com­mit­ments is to insin­cere­ly cast their work togeth­er as a rela­tion­ship, a bit of psy­cho­log­i­cal manip­u­la­tion he per­haps learned from his girl­friend.

Like Soderbergh’s Bub­ble and K Street, some of the cast are non-actors. But Grey is one step removed from an ama­teur, being in fact a pro­fes­sion­al porn star. She is like­ly one of the few to ever fall up, as it were, from pornog­ra­phy to a legit­i­mate film career. She doesn’t seem to have extra­or­di­nary act­ing skills (which is good, for her char­ac­ter is dis­tant and chilly by design), nor does she have an espe­cial­ly expres­sive face or voice. But she is remark­ably pret­ty, petite, and blessed with a love­ly fig­ure seem­ing­ly unmo­lest­ed by sil­i­cone. But why look to the world of porn to cast a pros­ti­tute? To put it blunt­ly, it’s ille­gal in most states for one per­son to get paid to pro­vide sex, but it is legal to get paid to have sex on cam­era. Did Soder­bergh imag­ine a real porn star would have spe­cial insight into the char­ac­ter of a pros­ti­tute? Per­haps he saw par­al­lels in Grey mar­kets her­self as a brand in the adult enter­tain­ment world.

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