Like Bubble, Stephen Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (IMDB), his second of six films for Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures, functions in part as a workplace drama, in this case focusing on the emotional struggles of a high-end call girl, Chelsea, played by porn star/performance artist, Sasha Grey. Chelsea is one of those high-priced escorts who provides more than mere sex with her clients; she also provides the illusion of a relationship, performing as the client’s girlfriend. She laughs at his jokes, listens intently to his stories, even answers his questions about her profession, all while maintaining a remarkably consistent facade.
Throughout the film, we are constantly reminded that Chelsea’s job is based primarily on performance, on providing an experience that will make her clients want to continue their relationship. As a result, GFE becomes, in part, a film, as J. Hoberman explains, about “the nature of acting.” Chelsea takes detailed notes about her dates, writing down what she wore, down to the designer, where they went for dinner, whether they had sex. She is also interviewed by a news reporter doing a story on prostitution who repeatedly pushes to reveal the “real” Chelsea to him. Alongside of her professional life, Chelsea’s boyfriend, Chris, a personal trainer, is beginning to doubt their relationship, especially after Chelsea encourages him to go on a weekend trip to Vegas with one of his rich clients so that she can work. Throughout the film, though, Chelsea maintains, as Karina Longworth describes it, an “impenetrable facade,” a sort of clinical distance that allows her to continue her work, though that cool surface unravels slightly over the course of the film. This coldness is also echoed in the clinical style Soderbergh uses to film GFE. As Karina also points out, “Close ups, especially of Grey, fail to function as the windows on internal life that Hollywood film trains us to look for.” And Grey herself seems to be a mirror of sorts, refusing to let us see beyond the surface of her dark sunglasses and blank stare.
The film is structured around a small number of set pieces and is told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards that may seem a little disorienting, especially on a first viewing. Chelsea faces a series of personal and business challenges. She wants to “expand [her] business” by increasing her presence on the web, which might include a session with a popular (and sleazy) manager of an escort review site who also promises to secure her lucrative employment in Dubai, where, he promises, men will pay thousands of dollars to “shake her hand.” Her boyfriend is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her career, especially when she agrees to go away for the weekend with a client with whom she feels a slight connection. She spots one of her regulars with another escort, a woman who physically resembles her, but is taller and seems, at least on a brief glimpse through a shop window, quicker to laugh and smile.
GFE is also filled with period details, making the film run the risk of appearing “instantly dated,” to use Karina’s phrase. The movie takes place in the weeks before the 2008 election, and many of her clients are concerned about their future economic prospects. One client counsels her to buy gold. Others talk about investment advice and try to chide her into voting for McCain. On one level, it makes sense to read these encounters as introducing a “life as commerce” storyline, as Bill Gibron writes in PopMatters, in which Chelsea’s maneuvers to maintain her clients are mirrored in the actions of her boyfriend’s struggles as a personal trainer and even in the actions of the Wall Street executives who pay for her services. This sense of anticipated crisis permeates the film, and while it is tempting to suggest that these scenes make the film feel dated, I had a quite different reaction, seeing these references as a brief, almost documentary, glimpse into a moment when a number of certainties about power, identity, and even the financial system itself, were in flux, especially as the Wall Street bankers and jewelers worry about seeing their economic prospects drying up. In short, GFE is a film rich in period detail, a fascinating first rough draft of the 2008 stock market and election year panic (one that seems to hearken back to Soderbergh’s work on the short-lived TV series, K Street), while also addressing the issues of identity and performance in an intriguing way.
The Girlfriend Experience is the second of six planned features that Soderbergh will be making for simultaneous theatrical and cable TV distribution through Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures and his cable channel. It’s odd to look back at my entry on the controversy over the distribution of Bubble, which was released early in 2006, especially now that so-called day-and-date distribution has become relatively normalized in such a short time. It’s also a nice reminder that day-and-date is a valuable alternative for those of us in smaller cities who likely wouldn’t have access to this film in theaters.