That Certain Female
2009 // USA // Steven Soderbergh // June 9, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B+ - Perhaps unexpectedly, Steven Soderbergh's lean, chilly The Girlfriend Experience shares two key elements with the director's previous film, the four-hour biopic Che: an admirable lack of artistic compromise and a thematic nucleus that is oddly straightforward given the elaborate character of the presentation. Once again stepping away from his brand of pleasurable, blissfully hip commercial fare to create a film wholly on his own terms, Soderbergh brings his talents to bear on a relatively simple story of entrepreneurial and sexual peril that plays out in the hotels, restaurants, and boutiques of Manhattan. Perhaps "story" is the wrong word. In contrast to Che's grand, exhaustive study of revolution as process, Girlfriend barely bothers with a plot. Or, more accurately, the plot is so thoroughly fragmented that the film's events and their relationship to one another are plainly not Girlfriend's focus. (This alone is a fascinating departure for the director of the Ocean's films, where the elaborate heists are the Whole Point.) Employing a structure that one could term "narrative cut-up," Soderbergh slices and dices the life of a New York call girl in October 2008 into a collage of cinematic musings on self-worth, loyalty, and autonomy.
The escort in question is Chelsea (Sasha Gray), a young twenty-something with a soft-spoken manner and a hidden competitive streak. The Girlfriend Experience revolves around Chelsea's interactions with her clients and her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), as well as a few other personalities of benign and dubious intentions. Inasmuch as the film can be said to have a story, it is the tale of these encounters. However, Soderbergh presents them as a jumbled series of snippets, hopping around in time in a manner that is too disciplined to be called avant-garde, but friskier than if the aim were merely to construct a puzzlebox plot. Certainly, a disciplined viewer could decipher the clues—outfits, objects, demeanors—to assemble a "chronologically correct" edit of the film, but there would be little point. There are no mysteries left unresolved by the end of The Girlfriend Experience, but neither are the resolutions particularly striking. This reinforces that Soderbergh is much more fascinated with what the events unfolding on screen reveal about his thematic concerns than in the appeal of story for its own sake.
Much of Girlfriend is dedicated to Chelsea entertaining her clients, with sex being only one facet of the service she provides. Fundamentally, her clients want her to be available, on their terms and for their purposes. Depending on the man, she can be a companion for a night out, an accessory, a witty conversationalist, a shoulder to weep on, or a sexual object to delight or demean. In their presence, Chelsea is attentive and charming in a demure sort of way. Afterward, she is more relaxed, briskly tapping away at a laptop where she records every detail of the "client meeting": I wore these shoes, he ordered this entrée, we had sex that many times. She comes home to Chris, a personal trainer who is aware of her profession, and modestly supportive of her ambitions the way he imagines a good boyfriend should be. The film occasionally wanders away to follow Chris as he oversees his clients, contemplates a switch to a more upscale gym, and moonlights as an athletic wear vendor. When a customer generously offers to bring him along for a "guy's weekend" in Las Vegas, he makes a show of his reluctance for Chelsea, but we already know he's going.
The twinnings at work in Chelsea and Chris highlight the shared commodification of their bodies and the experiences those bodies promise. However, Soderbergh isn't aiming for anything as crude as an equivalency between the fitness industry and prostitution. Rather, what Girlfriend emphasizes is the extent to which Chelsea and Chris, both attractive people, have lashed their identities to their careers, with all the pitching and rolling that entails. Chelsea feels threatened by the emergence of new girls in the Manhattan escort scene, talks anxiously with a developer about upgrading her website, and is denigrated by a slovenly "escort reviewer" (played, incidentally, by estimable cinema blogger Glenn Kenny). Chris is turned away by sporting goods stores and dressed down by the manager at his gym. Everyone the pair talks to obsesses about the collapsing economy and the upcoming presidential election. Watching the self-worth of these two otherwise stunning people wilt in the face of criticism, competition, and financial uncertainty is the kind of humane observation that Soderbergh knows how to pull off without a trace of condescension or mean-spiritedness.
The film returns repeatedly to two conversations that provide commentary on the focal scenes. In the first, Chelsea commiserates with an older escort friend, wondering aloud how close she should get to a client with whom she feels an emotional connection. In the second, she meets a journalist for lunch, a man who smells a story in the life of an urbane call girl, but whose prodding questions put Chelsea on edge. These exchanges accent what is occurring elsewhere and elsewhen. The primary scenes of Girlfriend reveal a simple story of piss-poor judgment that grows, cancerously, from uncertainty about the future. Tough messaging in these glum economic times, perhaps, but Soderbergh tackles it soberly, the aloofness of his style providing the necessary distance. Girlfriend suggests that a stressful atmosphere amplifies natural human impulses towards hubris, cowardice, and defiance, and also exacerbates the consequences of those ugly urges.
Real-life pornstar Gray acquits herself well as Chelsea, a role far too complex for mere stunt casting. Gray's unexpected, low-key manner establishes Chelsea as a woman of prudence and discipline, rendering her eventual stumbles all the more tragic. Soderbergh evinces a barbed awareness of his actress' physical and sexual niche, for while Chelsea envisions herself as a sophisticate, Kenny's gleefully malicious windbag derides her as more suited to a "girl-next-door" role. The rest of the performances are satisfactory, with the exception of Kenny's distracting (if suitably discomfiting) turn. However, the acting in Girlfriend is secondary to the main attraction: the distinctive look and sound of a Soderbergh film, full of gorgeously lit locations that ooze contemporary style and a jazz soundtrack that jiggles with expectation. The allure of The Girlfriend Experience is that of a consummate stylist tackling fundamental aspects of human behavior, all while dismissing parochial storytelling with a wave of his hand.