When I first saw Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience at a press screening while covering the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009 I felt uncomfortable. The fact that the movie is about an escort, played by the adult film actress Sasha Grey, and was very direct about sex wasn’t what got under my skin and, in fact, isn’t really what makes the movie so fascinating. What made me anxious was the money and not just all the talk about money, but how the film depicted the way that money distorts behavior and enables certain tendencies.
The drive of Grey’s character, who goes by the name of Chelsea, is to make more money and eventually open an upscale Manhattan boutique. That’s the fiscal backbone of the character but it’s barely brought up in the dialogue, aside from one scene with a sleazy investment advisor. What Soderbergh highlights instead is the variety of performances Chelsea juggles, utilizing a myriad of storytelling devices that make her an ideal symbol not only for film and TV actresses but for the filmmaker as well.
The film, which is cut into a non-linear hash of happenings, bounces from a voice-over reading of a diary of Chelsea’s encounters, intimate conversations with her boyfriend, a colleague, an escort critic, and her clients, business discussions, and an interview with a deeply fascinated journalist. In each situation, the tone of the exchanges and delivery is notably different, the rhythm and selection of words changing with whom Chelsea perceives she must become for her partner in that moment. When speaking with the journalist, she’s asked about whether or not anyone is interested in the real version of herself, a question she essentially blows off until the very end of the film.
In terms of dialogue, which was written by Billions co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levein, there is a stress on brand names and the luxury that money affords. When reading off her diary entries, Chelsea makes a point of highlighting the kinds of clothing and lingerie she wears, and the drinks and food that her clients prefer. With the first client, it’s a tasting menu with wine pairings at Blue Hill after a screening of Man on Wire, before she describes the Michael Kors and La Perla fashions she sports; for the second one, it’s dinner at Nobu and a bottle of Macallan 25, set against her Kiki de Montparnasse corset with gloves to match. The way these things taste and feel, or the way they are made, are not particularly important, but the names seem to mean everything. It’s not surprising that Soderbergh also shows an aesthetic tendency to highlight the stylized printing and names of the restaurants and boutiques that Chelsea visits.
In a sense, Chelsea represents Soderbergh at the height of his worth in Hollywood, and at his most potently enraged as an artist. The two films that preceded The Girlfriend Experience were Ocean’s Thirteen, one of his most populist-leaning films, and Che, his astounding yet commercially and even critically disastrous look at the life of the Cuban revolutionary, an experience that left him openly bitter about the business of making movies. The constant talk of luxury brands, in the work of a high-end prostitute, suggests at once a critical, self-deprecating view of Soderbergh’s art and employment, mirroring it in the work of a well-dressed, well-fed call girl, as well as the distasteful amount of wealth and selling of products that goes into filmmaking. All of this goes towards the tailoring of an image, which relates both to the creation of movie imagery but also of how he, as an artist, must sell himself to producers, investors, and studio heads.
The molding of a particular look is also integral to her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who is looking to branch out into exercise apparel and as a part of a larger corporate structure. In essence, the couple represents two experiences of getting images made, one through carefully chosen design and performance, the other through work, healthy living, and honest salesmanship. It should come as no surprise that the latter is the less successful route, as we watch Chris fail to get a foothold at a sports equipment store or a more high-scale gym than the one he works out of; he can’t even get a promotion at the gym he’s at, in fact. It goes back to an ugly, bewildering truth about making movies, one that Joe Swanberg recently discussed at his SXSW speech: if you have no money, everyone wants to say no to your idea, whereas when you have money already, everyone wants to give you much more.
These comparisons and ideas are strung along throughout various scenes, such as when Chelsea speaks with a programmer about making her website more visible in search engines and more professional looking and when Chris is asked to accompany a client and his friends, all in the financial business, on a trip to Vegas. It’s a credit to Soderbergh, however, that his skepticism about what his job entails is echoed both in his visuals and in his casting. There are several moments in the film where the characters are out of focus in the frame, and products and décor are emphasized instead: in one case, it’s a pair of wine glasses, and in another, its light fixtures at a swanky bar. And the casting of Grey, a performer who is largely hired for the look and use of her body, reflects a cynical but by no means misguided view of how actresses are viewed and utilized in the film industry. The fact that the grotesque escort reviewer, brilliantly named The Erotic Connoisseur, is played by longtime film critic Glenn Kenny, of Premiere and rogerebert.com, is the syrupy cherry on top.
Despite the rampant symbolism that Soderbergh conjures and indulges, The Girlfriend Experience is not a cold or clinical film at all. When Chelsea’s belief that she has a more romantic, intimate, even destined connection to a client, based largely on her belief in something called Personology, ends up being misplaced, her disappointment and heartbreak is potently felt. Sure, one could see this as a reflection of what its like to have a personal, intimate project fall through the cracks, but in the moment, its something more than that. It’s that fleeting feeling that underlines Soderbergh’s passion for his art form, even as he is well versed in its unseemly underbelly of greed, control, and self-aggrandizement.
That all of this unfolds in the wake of the economic crash and in the run-up to the 2008 election stresses that Soderbergh’s personal experiences with making and raising money have connections to much bigger economic ideas and decisions. Talk of Obama, McCain, and the crash are peppered throughout Chris and Chelsea’s discussions, and though the information all sounds quite convincing, there’s a sense through all of it that these people are full of shit. Soderbergh is smart enough not to stress this, to luxuriate in their shallowness, but when Chris must endure a long round of financial speak on his way to Las Vegas, there’s a feeling that they these guys, like Chelsea, are just saying what people want to hear, which is often just professional-sounding nonsense. Much like Chelsea wears fancy duds and eats at the very best restaurants in the five boroughs, financiers use selective, well-learned language to sell a sense of their own know-how and trustworthiness. Soderbergh sees very little difference between the two and clearly finds the whole business at once interesting and hugely disdainful, and it’s not unlikely that the discomfort I felt when I sat through this masterwork was the feeling of knowing that everyone, even the director himself, is selling me an idea, a beautiful yet inherently false sense of ideological certainty.