The Girlfriend Experience
by Jason Coffman
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The first image in The Girlfriend Experience sets the audience up for what follows: it is what appears to be a cold, polished metal wall gleaming under flourescent lights. It looks cold and impenetrable, and it seems like an appropriate metaphor for the film’s lead character. Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is an escort. Her line of work requires her to put up a wall between herself and her clients, even as she insinuates herself into their lives and gives them the illusion of having a relationship with her. We spend a lot of time with Chelsea alone and with her clients during the course of the film, but for the most part it feels like we’re trying unsuccessfully to peek over that wall, only getting glimpses of what’s on the other side.
Chelsea lives with her boyfriend, a personal trainer named Chris (Chris Santos). Both of them are looking to get ahead in their respective businesses. Chelsea is looking to expand her client base, but doesn’t want to do that at the expense of her anonymity. Chris is looking into working at other gyms. Unfortunately, they’re doing this at a particular time in history that will be uncomfortably familiar to the viewer: October 2008. Chelsea’s clients complain and fret about the collapsing economy, while one of Chris’s regular trainees decides to deal with the problem by going on a trip to Vegas and taking Chris along with him. These are people adept at avoiding difficulties, and they’re about to find themselves in the middle of difficult times.
Director Steven Soderbergh presents a time in Chelsea’s life leading to what could be a pivotal decision, but cuts it up and shows events out of order, and even repeats a few for good measure. The DV cinematography gives the film an intimate feel, and in a way it feels like an upper-class New York companion piece to Soderbergh’s 2005 film Bubble, which gave audiences a similarly personal glimpse into the lives of people living in a small Midwestern town. Its structure and documentary atmosphere also makes it feel like an update of sorts to Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, another character study about a young woman involved in prostitution with a similarly microscopic attention to detail.
Keen viewers will see that metal wall reappear during the course of the film, and realize that it was not what it seemed to be at all. Similarly, the distance that Chelsea puts between herself and her clients may not be as impenetrable as she thinks— when she meets a screenwriter client for the first time, they establish a real connection and Chelsea is left to decide whether it’s worth taking the chance on something real at the risk of losing her carefully-arranged and comfortable life. While this may appear to be a familiar story, Soderbergh’s shattered-glass chronology and Grey’s strong lead performance take the film to interesting places.
The Girlfriend Experience is an intriguing and unique peek into the lives of characters in an unfamiliar world (to most audiences) and in an uncertain time in their lives. I’m curious as to how the film will look ten years from now, though— as a period piece it’s about a time that’s too uncomfortably close.
Jason Coffman Jason Coffman
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