by Tony Dayoub
As is evident in the picture above where The Girlfriend Experience's two protagonists—Chelsea, nee Christine (Sasha Grey), and Chris (Chris Santos)—are out of focus, director Steven Soderbergh is preoccupied with the bejeweled adornments, glossy finishes, and burnished surfaces that make up the backdrop of this film. That is to the say, superficiality is at the crux of the story here, a tale that takes place during the 2008 Presidential elections. If the film seems like a historical document that is because Soderbergh is using this account of a few days in the life of an escort to focus on the extravagance that Americans had so much trouble leaving behind in the days after the financial meltdown of last year, a point all the more salient today since it is the anniversary of last year's stock market drop of nearly 778 points, the biggest single-day point loss ever.
Chelsea—who in this splintered narrative becomes the receptacle for everyone's logorrheic obsession with money and status—is in the perfect position to get the inside scoop because of her sometimes tenuous role as confidant to men in various eroding positions of power. As a professional escort, she is uniquely positioned to minister to both the physical and emotional needs of the various johns we meet throughout the film: a well-endowed French investor; a bald Wall-Streeter who wears diapers while he discusses leverage buyouts during one of their "dates"; a bespectacled accountant who helps her with her books; a TV producer facing diminishing renewals for his stable of shows; an architect who just lost a big client seeking solace in her. In one form or another, all of these men are experiencing the messy hangover of the financial meltdown. The unknowable future of a new administration coming in to straighten things out doesn't help allay any fears. Like with any addictive personality, these men are drunk on money and the things that it can afford them, i.e. the prime example being Chelsea herself, for if they were to truly face their present realities, they would realize that she is a luxury they can no longer afford. Fortunately, she knows that these relationships are empty ones built on the fragile foundations of now severely devalued paper.
Christine, the real woman behind call girl Chelsea, sees the looming financial abyss and is doing her best to invest wisely and quickly as it approaches. In matters of the heart, she reserves the truest part of herself for Chris. He, likewise, is a hustler in his career as a personal trainer, but less successful, it is implied, because of his inability to suppress his honest, straight-talking qualities—the very qualities that attract Christine.
At the outset of this nonlinear film, this all seems clear to us. Soderbergh's photography (ever since 2000's Traffic, he shoots his own films under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) is careful to crisply isolate these two characters from their lavish but blurry surroundings. But the pendulum swings in the other direction midway through The Girlfriend Experience, as seen in the still above, when Christine's wall unexpectedly comes down in front of an emotionally generous client who is willing to listen to her for a change. Priorities get confused, and Chris' reaction—as frequently happens in life—is to build a wall for himself and act out in a way we've come to associate with Christine/Chelsea. The concept of doppelgängers comes into play early: not just when we observe the duality inherent in Christine/Chelsea; or when we notice that the name Christine is the feminine of Chris; but also when we discern that Christine's latent desperation is motivated by a competitive, capitalist need to prevail over the "new escort in town," Tara (Caitlyn Lyon) a physically identical call girl that, at least metaphorically, is starting to crowd Christine/Chelsea out of her territory.
Adult film star Sasha Grey is perfectly cast as Chelsea. When Soderbergh fixes our attention on Grey's porcelain features, it doesn't matter that her delivery, whether deliberately stylized or not, is flat. It is simply fitting that it is so, just one of many hollow signposts in the landscape of the film.
Full disclosure: I was most interested in seeing my friend Glenn Kenny's performance as the repulsive Erotic Connoisseur, a professional escort consumer of sorts who promises stellar reviews in return for a free crack at a call girl. And I must say, he acquits himself quite grandly in the smarm department. Little did I know that I would also find myself enthralled by the "William Wilson"-like exploits of an escort during these harrowing financial times.