There’s plenty of experimentation in film, though it’s usually produced independently and often flies under the radar. Steven Soderbergh is a rare director in that he’s constantly shifting back and forth between big, moderately traditional productions and smaller, indie films. I watched Bubble a few years back, and though I didn’t care much for the film, I really admired Soderbergh’s ability to work outside of a comfort zone. If I had to guess I’d say that few directors will go into production on something they don’t feel confident will be called great. They’re obviously not always right in their assessment and hindsight is 20/20. I don’t know that Soderbergh minds working without a safety net, and again, I admire that. The Girlfriend Experience, shot in nearly two weeks and for just over a million dollars, finds him again doing something all on his own, and any of the good or bad that can be found here can’t be traced back to anyone but him. Maybe if he could have it his way, he’d sit in on every viewing and take questions afterward.
Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is an exceptionally high-priced escort living in New York City with her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer. As she bounces from one client to the next, offering not only sex but the entire “girlfriend experience,” Chelsea deals with the weight of this all-encompassing recession. Her clients are wealthy, and can discuss little else. She often refers to her “books,” astrological and personality tomes she considers necessary to the assessment of others and her own decisions. When she meets a first-time client whose birthday aligns with hers, she feels an immediate connection and disrupts her year-long relationship with Chris to explore it. Chris ends things between them, joining one of his clients on a Vegas excursion, and when Chelsea is stood up by the man, she returns to her empty New York loft. Her vocation the only thing left to nurture.
At face value, everything about the film suggests sex. A story about an escort, starring a porn star. It seems a given. Really though, there’s little here that could be considered even remotely stimulating in that regard. There’s a clear examination of relationships; both the relationship between an escort and her clients, and the truer one between her and her live-in boyfriend, along with the added consideration of a woman who allows her life to be guided by something as inane as astrology, and how that effects her choices. Ultimately though, this is a story about money. You’re catching a glimpse of a world driven by cash, and no small amount of cash either. Chelsea’s clients couldn’t utilize her service regularly without wealth, and they all seem driven by a relentless examination of their state. They’re unable to consider anything but their floundering business and these constant discussions of the economic state breed a singular paranoia among all the characters. Even Chris, whose far less glamorous or prosperous work as a trainer is also falling by the wayside, even he can’t avoid the ever-present threat of, gasp, not making as much money! To examine the economy from the angle of the uber-wealthy is certainly interesting, but it doesn’t carry a film. For that you would need a much deeper look into the relationships at work here, and that is unfortunately lacking. I suppose it could be summed simply by calling these characters shallow. Inasmuch as the don’t seem capable of really being adult about love or commitment, it’s near impossible to explore those themes.
The Girlfriend Experience then seems to fall into the category of films that simply tell the wrong story. The setup is good, the characters have potential, it’s got a pretty slick look, but as far as development, well, it’s just not as good as it could be. Somehow, this is more disappointing then those movies that never have any legs in the first place. Recognizing untapped potential is universally disheartening. The silver lining is that it’s Steven Soderbergh and he’ll inevitably have five great films in the next decade. I suppose if you’re going to produce films with the awareness that they may not find success, you can certainly find some solace in being one of the most prolific directors of all time.