When Steven Soderbergh selected Grey as his muse for this Sex, Lies and Videotape for an Apprentice generation, speculation was rife (and ribald) that The Girlfriend Experience would be as blue as the economic mood upon its release. Pleasingly nothing could be further from the truth.
The Girlfriend Experience presents five days in the life of a unique independent contractor ““ Manhattan call girl Chelsea. Chelsea’s $2000 an hour services conjure the illusion of an immersive relationship-lite. Sexually she is a consummate courtesan but emotionally her role is closer to that of Geisha. Solicitous, fascinated and utterly, china doll, detached. Boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) is fully aware of Chelsea’s double identity. Chris understands the pressure of a life trading one’s self as a commodity ““ every cent of profit he makes over his wage goes to fill the coffers of the downtown gym where he trains the wealthy and time-impaired. He is at an impasse and struggling to find a way forward.
While Chris struggles, Chelsea has an opportunity to introduce her charms to the readers of an influential punter-review forum. She sleeps with the lecherous webmaster, he raves about her performance online. He is paid in kind, she in custom. Surely her flawless professional facade can withstand such a trade? The story we see in broken fragments suggests not. Chelsea’s dynamic with Chris has become as close to GFE as any $2000 encounter so new client Phillip appears a kindred spirit and an escape when her tightly knitted-life begins to unravel…
I suspect that many people will go to see The Girlfriend Experience expecting a dialogue on the cause and effect of life as a working girl ““ it is after all the cause du (Belle de) jour. Others will go to see a little T&A. They will all be disappointed. In The Girlfriend Experience Steven Soderbergh has created a film which doesn’t proffer gift wrapped answers to the viewer. There are no life lessons here. Much has been made of the life-landscape behind GFE shot, as it was, in the weeks leading up to the 2008 Presidential election. As he favours structured improvisation the “˜civilian’ cast were encouraged to speak just as they would in life, to discuss the headlines of the day and banter about the minutiae of their lives. Thus the issues of the wider economy underscore the personal concerns of the cast and offer a timely context to a story originally conceived in 2006. The important thing to bear in mind though is that this tale could take place at any period of modern history because it is a story unique to Chelsea and the extraordinary world she occupies.
I will confess to having been a little disconcerted by the way The Girlfriend Experience ““ as both a movie and a concept ““ has been represented in reviews. I have read much that reinforces an idea of Chelsea as executive toy. Or even as a bespoke provider of instant coupledom for the busy man-about-town. The consensus appearing to be that GFE as a service is primarily about the G, that other distasteful F word diluted by phrases such as more than sex. Let me be very clear here then ““ The Girlfriend Experience is a film about a prostitute. It is a realistic and direct look at one successful working girl’s working week. It is doubtful that many of her clients are paying thousands of dollars for vanilla lovemaking and companionship. To not accept this as fact is to misunderstand the absolute accuracy of Grey’s standout performance. You want pretence, watch Pretty Woman.
Of Sasha’s performance James Rocchi at Cinematical wrote “Grey is not a great actress — I can’t really imagine her playing Ophelia or one of the Three Sisters”. I cannot help but agree. As one of the new power players in pop culture and contemporary porn I imagine, should Ms Grey set her sights on The Dane, she would insist upon playing the man himself! In appearance her Chelsea recalls Alison Lohman’s transient foster child in Peter Kosminsky’s White Oleander ““ a cool, pale canvas awaiting interpretation. For me though, in performance, Grey is pure Jennifer Jason Leigh ““ clever, complex and carnal. She credits Leigh as one of her heroines and there are echoes of the same temperament and tone here. I wonder that she has not received more praise for her compelling turn. When she is on screen she commands your focus utterly.
Together DP Peter Andrews and Steven Soderbergh have created a striking film. It has an authenticity that owes a great deal to the inexperience of the cast who, besides Grey, were predominantly playing variations on themselves. Irrespective of the 2008 setting, its gloss, materialism and magazine shoot aesthetic lend an undeniable 1980s tone. Further reinforced by the scattergun chatter of men on a Vegas bound jet that punctuates throughout. And anyone familiar with Bret Easton Ellis’s searing social commentary American Psycho will feel the retro force at its strongest as Chelsea meticulously details every outfit she wears. The attention to detail is impeccable, her presentation so Rachel-Zoe-by-numbers as to be a gentle pastiche. The red light camera emphasises the photo shoot effect, lending the available light all the mighty powers of an art department airbrush, so that the jumps from then to now and back become a flip through the pages of a life.
Chelsea hides behind her Zoe-disciple shades, impeccable wardrobe and the lowered gaze of a false-lashed eye. In place of self-awareness, surface. We never get any closer and we never understand. She shields the dangers of her job with superstition as her only safeguard. We see her in a town car with a driver, incongruously young against the formality of the backseat and lunching in a restaurant with a friend chattering about life and work. We see her at home lounging on an overstuffed couch and we see her taking investment advice from a Hassidic jeweller client before taking him into the back room for the unfriendly F. We see her at home, at work and at play. We never see who she is.
The Girlfriend Experience offers no new ammunition to either side of the prostitution debate and it is much the better film for it. It credits the audience with the ability to simply let it be what it is. For that reason The Girlfriend Experience stands out as one of my favourite films this year and one I unreservedly recommend.
The Girlfriend Experience is released in the UK on 4th December
View the full trailer below