Set in the world of high-class escort services, The Girlfriend Experience intends to be commentary on the commodification of the relationship but fails to engage its audience due to its cold and inaccessible style and the vague performance from its lead.
Sasha Grey is Chelsea, an escort who offers ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ – not only will she participate in sex for money, but she will go on a ‘date’, talk to her companion and provide a sympathetic and interested ear. Men seem to love hiring her as Chelsea will listen and engage in intelligent conversation with them, which apparently is something they cannot obtain in the more traditional manner. Chris (Chris Santos) is her long-term boyfriend and is aware of her ‘day-job’, and understanding to a certain point. When Chelsea meets a new client who intrigues her, however, their relationship will be tested like never before.
Grey is the real-life star of more than eighty pornographic films as well as a ‘transgressive artist’ and experimental musician. In her first role in a mainstream feature film, however, it is frequently difficult to be sure where her character really stands. Grey often makes Chelsea so obtuse and difficult to get to grips with, that the audience just cannot relate to her. A sly smile could mean anything, and it is almost as if she wants the audience to have no idea what she is up to. Perhaps this demeanour would be necessary in Chelsea’s line of work, but her disengagement from the story is hard to overcome. This effect is enhanced by the manner in which director Steven Soderbergh has chosen to present his material: The Girlfriend Experience is striking for the utterly cold way in which it explores its subjects, allowing so little of the characters to be revealed that they remain enigmas.
Additionally, Soderbergh has fractured the timeline of the film such that it often seems he threw all of the individual storyboard panels in the air and then edited the film in the order in which they fell. He does still manage to generate an overriding narrative, however the use of this technique further increases the barriers between the material and its audience.
Set during the run-up to the 2008 Presidential Election and at the height of the ‘Global Financial Crisis’, many of Chelsea’s clients seemingly are more worried about the bail-out than anything else. The ascent of Barack Obama – although one may debate what real effect his early presidency has had in its self-stated goal of change – has altered the prevailing milieu. The world seems a different place now, and so clearly defining his film in a particular time and place may be a further barrier to its appreciation for some of Soderbergh’s audience.
The casting of well-known film critic Glenn Kenny in one of the most odious of roles – The Erotic Connoisseur, an opinionated online escort service critic – and his character’s appalling behaviour later in the film, suggest some form of comment by either Kenny or Soderbergh or both. When coupled with the treatment Quentin Tarantino dishes out to his film critic character in Inglourious Basterds, it’s a tough time to have an opinion about film.
That The Girlfriend Experience has turned out to be such a dry and sterile film is unfortunate, as the material is interesting enough in itself, but its effect is reduced by its treatment. Disappointing.Rating: