The Girlfriend Experience
Director: Stephen Soderbergh
As a drama about the deceptively superficial nature of material goods in contemporary society, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is an ostentatious success. By following Chelsea (porn star Sasha Grey), an upwardly mobile call girl, screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman ask us to sympathize with the ultimate recession-friendly underdog. As a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession, Chelsea must constantly reinvent herself and hence struggle to remain competitive in a male-dominated market controlled by clients that pay for both emotional and physical indulgences. Because she makes a living by putting on a show for them, we rarely see the “real” Chelsea.
Therein lies the challenge that Soderbergh and company give themselves: stylistically reproducing the frenetic lifestyle of a serial mistress. Her story is chronologically jumbled, abruptly transitioning from various “appointments” with high-powered clients to scenes with her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos in his debut role). Similarly, to visually affect Chelsea’s harried emotional state, Soderbergh films events with his High-Definition RAW camera with a markedly detached aesthetic, focusing first on flashy, high-end building fixtures and then on his synonymously pretty human subjects.
This impressionistic approach leaves the viewer in a haze of mood lighting, nanny cam-like photography, and structurally devious episodes. For the sake of immersing us in Chelsea’s emotional woes, we are assaulted with a narrative puzzle box that rearranges otherwise garish, quasi-reality-TV -show fodder into a critique on the information age.
Make no mistake, while Chelsea traipses about in designer clothing and lives in a big-ticket Manhattan loft, the disjointed manner by which her story is told stems from Soderbergh’s ambitious stab at commenting on our media-saturated era. Because there’s so much information to process at once in any given scene of Chelsea’s life, everything is fractured. This gives us the impression that we’re being bogged down with the task of determining which scenes go where in order to form a coherent story. It begs the question of whether or not she can make sense of her life. Can we make sense of our own lives, in the splintered zeitgeist in which we find ourselves?
The Girlfriend Experience can subsequently be seen as a movie that aptly reflects contemporary exhaustion with a multimedia deluge of sound bite-sized data. “If I hear one more word about this debate,” Scott whines about the recent presidential debates, “I’m going to throw up. If I hear the word ‘Maverick,’ one more time, I’m going to throw up.” Manufacturing a coherent picture of the information age’s complexities is sweaty work. Chelsea’s paradox is that she serves as a cipher for her clients’ anxieties, yet remains herself frustratingly unreadable and, ultimately, unsatisfying. In an age of relentless Twittering, shortcut scheming investment bankers, and bookstores stuffed with microwave literature, does this figure ring any bells?
However, as a metaphor for our age, Chelsea is stripped of her appeal as a three-dimensional character and transformed into a virtual sandwich board. Her lilting pout and quiet one-note intensity sour. Eventually, she feels like a means to Soderbergh’s allegorically experimental end. Despite her independent (dare I say, enterprising) lifestyle, she’s never able to get ahead in a world where even she, a self-professed expert at reading other people’s needs, has her own insatiability. She is lured by a mysterious new client, a sleazy internet blogger (NY film critic Glenn Kenny) who promises a great write-up in exchange for sex. In order for The Girlfriend Experience to work as a social polemic, Chelsea has to lose.
The problem with that kind of mentality is that it’s only rewarding to the viewer that’s willing to accept Soderbergh’s pat use of Chelsea as a statement on the perils of making yourself your own product.
Simon Abrams is a freelance film critic living in New York City.