The sexually-savvy people of Montreal will surely already be familiar with “the girlfriend experience,” an arrangement by which a higher-class escort indulges her patron not only with sex, but also with dinner, movies, chit-chat — in short, with actual (fake) human interaction — for a not inconsiderable fee. It’s this tension between the real and the fake, along with an ever-present awareness of the economic recession, that creates much of the intrigue in Che director Steven Soderbergh’s latest low-fi indie effort, The Girlfriend Experience.
The film, which clocks in at a scrawny 78 minutes, follows a young affluent New York couple, both of whom sell themselves in order to make their living amid increasingly difficult economic circumstances. She (Chelsea) provides rich men with social and sexual companionship (the titular “girlfriend experience”), while he (Chris) sells social and physical confidence as a personal trainer. The comparison, not dissimilar to that made between the wrestler and the stripper in last year’s The Wrestler, is facile and doesn’t get us very far in terms of understanding the motivations of these characters. Both of them perform versions of themselves based on the desires and needs of those paying them: Chris transforms into a charismatic, ego-boosting dude while Chelsea becomes a glorified interviewer, asking easy, topical questions such as: “What about the bailout?” And listening to her clients’ endless kvetching. Between the two of them, Chris’ clients seem more enamoured.
Soderbergh, who alternates admirably between large-scale studio pictures (like the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy) and smaller independent fare (like 2005’s Bubble), is less interested in plot than he is in asking some of the big questions inherent to these situations. For instance, where does commerce end and real conversation begin? Is human interaction even possible in a situation that is inherently contrived? And how can we distinguish between a self-consciously constructed persona and one’s everyday performance of self?
In service of this third question, Soderbergh has hired 21- year-old porn starlet Sasha Grey as his lead actress, and as such, the film’s success or failure lies squarely on her shoulders. While Grey is no stranger to the camera’s probing eye, she is perhaps not used to its lens maintaining its focus on her face. All things considered, she performs admirably in a role that doesn’t seem to demand much of her — Chelsea (if that’s her real name) is played almost entirely without affect, speaking with the slightly condescending cadence of Paris Hilton, while more closely resembling a well-painted porcelain doll (particularly her amazingly static eyebrows) than a human being. If her dialogue in the opening scenes seems dry, just wait for her mechanically read voice-over to kick in.
However, it is precisely these qualities that make her slight transformation towards the end of the film seem more remarkable. There are no big plot twists or dramatic character beats to be had in this film, but there is a moment at which the viewer recognizes some semblance of that “real” personality alluded to earlier, making me curious to see if the character’s internal life comes through more on a second viewing. Eventually, she can no longer maintain her role as the listener and must play an emotionally weighty scene with one of her johns. By way of assessment, suffice it to say that if Grey continues to choose interesting projects such as this one, she could very well be the next Chloë Sevigny, who, while not a porn star, is also no stranger to performing onscreen fellatio.
The Girlfriend Experience is now playing at the AMC Forum 22.