A high-end female escort service is supposed to provide, at least in theory, a fanciful male fantasy for a few hours. Or so that is the thinking of the common, untried man. But in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, we follow an escort who “provides” as the title suggests, the serviceable act of being a girlfriend which is much less fantasy and much more grounded in basic human interaction than one might suspect. Steven’s “GFE” is a slice of life in Manhattan that takes place just prior to President Obama’s election to office and Soderbergh depicts the “girlfriend” as much more of a business woman than a fantastical being.
Real life porn star Sasha Grey stars as the titular escort Christine who goes by Chelsea during her visits. As Chelsea, she embodies less a man’s fantasy but more so someone to keep these men company. Most of the guys who use her services are among the wealthy elite, so her clients routinely complain to her about the economy all the while shelling out big bucks just to spend time with her. An interesting dichotomy from that standpoint but there is no central conflict here.
Naturally, escorts do have lives outside of when they are working and that is what “GFE” focuses on. Christine is living with Chris, a personal trainer who himself is on his own come-up, seeking placement for his exercise-related clothing line and a salaried position with a local gym. The couple has but one main rule with their relationship and that is for Christine not to become emotionally involved with any clients. She values numerology as a source of spiritual enlightenment however, and it drives many of the decisions she makes in business and in life. These issues prove challenging for them as you might expect.
Very much an art film, Soderbergh is back to his indie roots as he employs a jumping timeline to keep the talking heads moving and make no mistake about it, the only thing that takes place in the film is conversation. That is not to diminish the film per se, but the voyeur in you will come away disappointed in this character study. While one expects the promise of plenty of sex (perhaps even on videotape like in Steven’s seminal Sex, Lies & Videotape), there is none to be had. In that regard this would be more aptly called the “Wife Experience.” I wasn’t unhappy with the lack of on-screen sex as intimacy of a variety of sorts takes place, but if sex is what you wish for, you might want to seek out Grey’s usual line of work.
While the ending is somewhat telegraphed, the real difficulty lies in the fact there is little emotional punch in the film. The inexperience of the actors lead Soderbergh to use trickery to best hide their flaws via dim lighting or obscure camera angles. The characters do draw you in but this is more of a study in capitalism. Christine has her regulars and rookies, balancing her attempts to branch out into various forms of business enterprise where opportunities and outside input are equally ample. Of note, film critic Glenn Kenny steals one scene as a sleazy, well, critic of adult entertainment and there is a nice thumping score supplied by Ross Godfrey. In the end, there is just not much to excite one here though and after seeing this movie, The Girlfriend Experience is not one in which you’ll likely want to partake in again anytime soon.