In the course of reading review after review and interview after interview about Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience and its star Sasha Grey, one invariably gets to a point where the writer, usually a middle age man, pauses to sheepishly assure their readers that they've never seen any of Ms. Grey's "other" work. Reading such suspiciously innocent and steadfast assertions of ignorance adds a meta-layer to watching The Girlfriend Experience, because such claims regarding Grey and her day-job have a similar air to the relationship her character Chelsea has with her various rich, married, middle age clients, who would probably also never cop to watching porn even as they shell out thousands for a few hours with a similar fantasy experience. Dear Readers, I will put on no such airs, and admit I was well familiar with the Sasha Grey Experience long before this movie, so I can say anyone looking for something even 1/10th as dirty (or fun) in TGE will be sorely disappointed. It is a credit to Soderbergh that he's made a movie about sex work, starring a porn star that has no on-screen sex and only the barest and most circumstantial nudity, in favor of a completely cerebral and detached meditation on intimacy and commerce.
In the film Grey plays a high-class Manhattan escort, whose services make the fucking part almost incidental. In the opening scene she goes to a movie and dinner with her client and then back to his super-luxury apartment where she talks to him about a friend who keeps borrowing money before sipping some wine, making out on the couch and spending the night. Not exactly what we usually think of when we imagine prostitution, but the film positions love, sex, and intimacy as just another form of transaction, that while not shying away from some of the seedier aspects of sex work does so in a completely un-hysteric way that departs from the usual 'Oh my God, capitalism has commodified even our bodies!' sort of preachiness. Nonetheless, there is the distinct and disturbing presence of the marketplace in almost every interaction in the film. This theme is further laid out in the relationship between Chelsea and her live-in boyfriend Chris, who is aware of her job and is just the kind of insanely good looking dolt you would expect to work as a personal trainer for many of the same kind of men that patronize Chelsea. Both Chris and Chelsea earn a living by inflating the egos of rich pricks by pretending or more troublingly, not-pretending to form a personal connection with their clients.
In Soderbergh's semi-experimental style we lose a sense of time as we drift in and out of each scene or transaction between Chelsea and the various people in her life, not quite sure of when it is taking place. If there is one constant throughout, it is the ever-present specter of financial decline and the Great Fall of 08' -- several of her clients even counsel her to invest in gold, and in one hilarious scene a client makes sure to remind her to vote for McCain: "the State of Israel must continue," he says as he drops his pants. Maybe more than anything else TGE creates a fascinating and almost real-time portrait of contemporary Manhattan, a place deeply insecure about the future yet still clinging to seemingly anachronistic trappings of wealth and class. Chelsea, as a free agent in a kind of sexual economy -- one that seems deeply intertwined with the national and global economies -- moves through an almost interchangeable series of sleek interiors from high-rise condos, to high-end boutiques, gyms, restaurants, and hotels. The city itself, outside a few exterior shots, is largely obscured, a blur seen through the windows of a town car or hotel room.
This focus on interiors and the artifice of style and appearance mirrors the film's themes about the inscrutable and ambiguous nature of its lead, her job, and the negotiated nature of human relationships. How much of our "authentic" or inner-self do we allow into our jobs, boyfriends, girlfriends, families and how much do we have to? How much is just a role we play to get by? To what degree does such authenticity even exist? Grey brings much of the same kind of assuredly affectless quality to this role as she does in her work in adult film, and it is this kabuki interplay between the various characters she inhabits both in and outside of the world onscreen that adds to the film in a way a "traditional" actress would not. This vague overlapping between individuality and economy, between the roles we play and our supposedly real "inner-life" reflects a universal tension present in almost everyone's life. Like the cold, ultra-modern apartments and interiors the film drifts through, both Chelsea and Sasha's interiority seems both well-designed though illusive and transitory. Emotions remain thoroughly opaque throughout, perhaps the one aspect of our lives that remains frustratingly outside the control of the marketplace of human desires.
In this clip we learn that the self-proclaimed film buff and "existentialist porn-star" is most definitely no joke when it comes to her movie game. Among her top five we learn that along with the works of Herzog, Cassavetes, Goddard, and Breillat, her number one choice is John Carpenter's Escape from New York. I don't think I've ever been more turned on in my life. We should all be so lucky to have a "girlfriend" or boyfriend experience with someone with such a strong Netflix Queue.