Steven Soderbergh moves back and forth between directing big, star-filled, audience pleasers and independent experimental films. The Girlfriend Experience, shot on a budget of less than $2 million and starring adult film actress Sasha Grey, fits decidedly into the latter category. In one of the first scenes a character remarks that the film she watched was like a cross between a documentary and a narrative film. That’s exactly what this one is. You’re being set up.
Our lead is an escort named Christine (Sasha Grey), who aliases as Chelsea and provides the more intimate “girlfriend experience” of the title. That refers to not just sex, but an emotional attachment, fake or potentially real, by the escort. She pretends to be her client’s girlfriend, either just at social events or at home, too. Most of her clients are wealthy businessmen, I suppose because they’re the only ones who can afford her services. Over the course of the film, we also watch her be interviewed by a journalist, attempt to expand her business, and perhaps form a true emotional connection with one of her clients, all while having a boyfriend.
The film is told in non-linear fashion, and primarily features talking. Discussions about the economy, about people’s wants and needs, and so on. Chrstine sits down with a journalist in one of the story threads and is interviewed about her job. I mentioned the economy. The film is set in 2008, right before — or right at the beginning of — a financial crisis. Christine’s clients offer suggestions as to what she should do with the money they give her.
Perhaps the talking point of the film is the fact that it does star Sasha Grey. That’s enough of a draw to some people, and is about the only marketing ploy that The Girlfriend Experience needs. If your hope as a viewer is to see a porn-style film, given the star, you will be disappointed. Apart from a couple of brief moments of nudity, the film is extremely restrained in its showing of Grey’s body. It’s not an exploitation film and it’s not aiming to titillate.
Instead, it’s attempting to bring insight into this specific profession, highlight a particularly successful individual inside of that profession, and maybe bring some light social commentary to the table through the various conversations that its characters have. It’s successful at all of this. Does it work as a traditional narrative-driven film? No, it doesn’t. Not at all. But at what’s attempting to do, it’s about as good as one could possibly hope.
I’ve always held the belief that director Steven Soderbergh can get a good-to-very-good performance out of anyone. The proof is not more in the pudding than it is here, as Sasha Grey does a far better job than anyone could have expected or hoped for. She’s not new to acting, but to perform in this way and at this level I would expect this is a first. Watching the transition from the stoic, tell-me-you-love-me persona to what her character actually feels is surprisingly effective. Soderbergh uses a lot of long takes and you have to wonder how much of the film is scripted, how much is being ad-libbed, and how much comes from personal experience.
The rest of the actors in the film also come in the form of either people you’ll never have heard of, or non-actors, such as Peter Zizzo, who writes and produces music, or Glenn Kenny, who is a film critic. You wouldn’t know that they’re not actors without looking them up. Most of the characters are named after the person’s real name. Chris Santos goes by “Chris.” Peter Zizzo is named “Zizzo.”
There’s no end goal. There’s no story to finish or ultimate destination to reach. The Girlfriend Experience follows this woman and her clients and then leaves them after 77 minutes are up. (Probably closer to 70 minutes if you exclude credits.) You need to be willing to accept its premise and execution if you’re going to have any chance of enjoying it. This isn’t like most films. It’s different. It’s an experiment with modest ambitions. And I think it’s highly successful at doing what it sets out to accomplish. If it sounds interesting to you, I suggest watching it.