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.
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.
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.