Steven Soderbergh, the eclectic director who launched the American indie film boom with his 1989 debut, sex, lies and videotape, circles back to his origins with The Girlfriend Experience, a chilly, deadpan satire of free enterprise doing a face-plant. The film follows a few days in the life of a young New York call girl whose high-rolling clients start to see their financial playhouses fall down.
Running at a brisk 77 minutes, The Girlfriend Experience isn't on the scale of Soderbergh's more ambitious films, including the Oceans blockbusters, Oscar-winners such as Traffic and Erin Brockovich , and his epic Che . This is one of the director's small, experimental, semi-improvised provocations, and if it doesn't push too deep, it's pointed enough to leave a mark.
Partly an homage to Jean-Luc Godard's capitalism-as-prostitution theme in Vivre sa vie (1962), the film tracks five days in October, 2008, amid the U.S. presidential campaign and the meltdown in international financial markets. With its jigsaw of jumping time frames, the film is all about fragmentation, reflecting the daily credit crisis that was unfolding during its shooting period. (The on-the-fly script was penned by Oceans 13 writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien.)
In the sex trade, the phrase "girlfriend experience" refers to an intimate companionable encounter, as opposed to a "porn-star experience," which allows the client to try things he's seen in porn movies. In Soderbergh's bit of stunt casting, the lead is 21-year-old Sasha Grey, a porn veteran who is famous for the extremism of what she does on camera. So here, in a sense, she's working against type: There are no sex scenes in the film and the service Chelsea offers is of the tamer type.
In the opening scene, we see her on a date. She and her companion go for dinner at a tony, under-lit restaurant and discuss the movie they've just seen ( Man on Wire ). They seem like smart, good-looking, moneyed young people, and the date plays out like a scene from Sex and the City without the voiceover wisecracks. Over breakfast and bad headlines the next morning, she gets her pay envelope and some investment tips from her client, who's too busy on the phone to kiss her goodbye.
At the conclusion of a series of encounters, we see the pattern repeated as various clients and portfolio managers offer Chelsea advice: Vote McCain, buy gold, invest in a boutique, get your brand out there. They tell her these things, not just for services rendered but because, you know, they care about her.
Like any good businesswoman, Chelsea cares back, documenting everything about her transactions - the restaurants visited, the names of the clients' kids and what designers their wives wear. Possibly not since American Psycho has one film managed to mention so many designer labels.
There's nothing here that encourages us to pity Chelsea any more than her lonely clients, who may be facing financial ruin. She has a girlfriend to confide in, and a handsome live-in boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), who works as a fitness instructor. She makes about $2,000 an hour to his $125, which may be more of a threat to their relationship than the specific way she earns her salary. Anxious to start a line of athletic gear, Chris flirts with his own group of rich male clients, who treat him like a mascot and take him on a Vegas weekend.
Throughout, Grey's performance makes no false steps and the casting choice seems astute. Her role is less of a character than a projection screen and sounding board for all kinds of male notions about status, sex and money. Her external attributes are concisely summed up by a hostile "escort reviewer" known as the Erotic Connoisseur (played with sleazy gusto by movie critic Glenn Kenny), who documents her "smoky gaze," "lack of affect" and combination of girl-next-door and Goth looks under a veneer of sophistication. In short, she's versatile.
As for the "inner" Chelsea, as she makes clear during an interview with a pushy reporter (played by real-life journalist Mark Jacobson), her personal feelings aren't for sale. Or at least that's the case until Chelsea gets confused by the similarity between who she is and what she sells.
In a world where everything depends on maintaining your brand identity, those stupid human emotions can be career-breakers.