Steven Soderberg’s The Girlfriend Experience

Apr 20, 2010 by Tom Jones

Real life Porn star, Sasha Grey, portrays a high-end “Escort,” as the main character in the movie, The Girlfriend Experience. In the case of this film, the girlfriend-for-hire in question is Christine, who goes by the name Chelsea.

The two main protagonists in the movie are Chelsea, and her onscreen boyfriend, played by actor, Chris Santos as the character, Chris, whom she shares her “real self” with. He’s a personal trainer, and appears to be fairly good at what he does, whose job it is to sell the promise of a better body to his clients, most of whom won’t likely achieve the goal.

The movie’s plot is simple enough. Set in the recent backdrop of the Presidential election and the financial meltdown, Chelsea makes believe that she cares about her “clients,” while acting out the girlfriend part by listening to their concerns—mostly money related, and acts accordingly to care; which we know she doesn’t.

The movie operates on dual tracks:

On the one hand we have the cinéma-vérité style of documentary filmmaking that stresses unbiased realism, which has always played a part in Soderberg’s oeuvre. That’s how he got his big break with the movie, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” The director’s focus is that of the character’s life—one filled of familiar interiors—stylish flats, bedrooms, shopping boutiques, clothes, New York City, the ever constant close-ups of Sasha Grey, her encounters with others in closed settings, and the use of hand held digital cameras, also known as the RED camera. Soderbergh himself announced that he shot the film in 16 days, on a shoestring budget of 1.7 million, largely improvised, and on the RED camera. The much hyped “art house” features of this film. and its concomitant expose of the real and the fictitious, work on some level given the context of the film in of itself.

However, Sasha Grey’s character, Chelsea, is one-dimensional in her on-screen life. After the first couple scenes of her liaisons, relationships, and dialogue we come quickly to the conclusion that her character’s identity is confused, shallow, and hollow. Just as much, if not more than her client’s.

Her only two confidants and friends are her boyfriend, who is accepting of the fact she’s a whore, and her gal pal “Escort,” whom she confides in for advice.

Her boyfriend seems interested in her to the point of seriousness that’s at least believable to discern; the return feelings and attachment that Chelsea gives back to Chris Santos’ character, Chris, is to leave for a weekend with one of her clients that she knows will destroy their relationship. Needless to say, she goes anyway and gets stood up by the client losing whatever dignity she may possess.

As Santos’ character, Chris, initially turned down a Vegas junket with his wealthy clients because his girlfriend couldn’t go, Grey announces that she’s going to break one of their main rules of the relationship–that she was never to spend time with a client outside of their hourly paid sessions.

Throughout the film, is the insertion by the editors of Chris’ friends in an airplane in a grainy, and never ending loop of their discussions and close ups of them during their plane ride. That displays a literary technique familiar to such writers as Tom DeLillo, and the tedious intensity of director Spike Lee’s movies, to drive home a message–whatever that message is present in this film.

But that doesn’t stop her from moving on just as quickly as if it never happened. In that, perhaps life does imitate art.

The other character’s in the movie aren’t grounded enough to even illicit anything more than our intellectual and emotional scorn; and as a prism into our own lives that we’re held hostage to our obsessive compulsiveness about money–which reduces us to our most basic human form.

We must, it seems, dismiss the eternal human heart in the words of C.S. Lewis:

The truth is that when you have stripped off what the human heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being. To take an example from a simple matter, human eating, when you have abstracted all that is peculiar to the social and culinary practice of different times and places, resolves itself into the merely physical. Human love, abstracted from all the varying taboos, sentiments, and ethical discriminations which have accompanies it, resolves itself into something capable of medical treatment, not of poetical.

Perhaps it was the intent of the screenwriter’s, Messrs. Brian Koppelman and David Levien, to have Ms. Grey’s character so full of ennui and aimlessness, that style and content are fused and end up being one and the same.

That makes for glimpses of some art and some cinema and some plot—but the movie has some very serious flaws, that render those defects fatal flaws—the film fails to connect or identify the viewer with any of its characters.

For starters, the viewers’ can’t identify or emote with any of the main protagonists and the background characters–from Chelsea’s clients, to her one-dimensional boyfriend and his encounters as a trainer, to a journalist hopelessly trying to get her to talk to him on a more detailed level–which are all symptomatic of a cacophony of more emotional dead-ends that define all of the characters in this film.

As a sleazy Internet entrepreneur wants to take Chelsea “to the next level,” by promoting her services through a new and improved website, he wants to try her on a literal, as well as metaphorical “casting couch,” and we really don’t care.

Here, art imitates life. And that the character is a porn star only reinforces it.

What makes the difference between a great movie and one that’s not is character, story, and plot, and this movie is low on all three.

The glue that holds anything together in this movie is perhaps that’s what the writers, and Soderberg, sought from the beginning:

We’re all caught up in the giant machine of our society and its commodization of our lives and productivity, and our self-worth is tied up in it—both literally and allegorically.

After reading the film studio’s official description of the movie, I was expecting one thing but the film delivers another:

“Set in the weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential election, The Girlfriend Experience is five days in the life of Chelsea (adult film star Sasha Grey in her mainstream film debut), an ultra high-end Manhattan call girl who offers more than sex to her clients, but companionship and conversation – “the girlfriend experience.” Chelsea thinks she has her life totally under control—she feels her future is secure because she runs her own business her own way, makes $2000 an hour, and has a devoted boyfriend who accepts her lifestyle. But when you’re in the business of meeting people, control can be easily manipulated.”

In The Girlfriend Experience, prettiness is both boring and demoralizing at the same time.

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2 Responses to “Steven Soderberg’s The Girlfriend Experience”

  1. Jake says:

    This film seems to be just an hour or so glimpse into the lives of a cast of shallow and seemingly indifferent characters. Sasha Grey will be one of the fortunate few to cross over from porn into mainstream film, if this vehicle allows her to do so? Thanks for the in-depth, psychological look behind this movie. Maybe Soderberg had Sasha Grey on his casting couch?


  2. Rick R. says:

    Your review peaks my interest to check out this film, when otherwise I might have passed it by at the theater or rental store. I guess Sasha Grey being an actual Pornstar does make me more curious to view her performance in a real film? Who knows, maybe Sasha Grey will be performing in a Woody Allen comedy / musical someday? Right up Woody’s alley.


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