“The Girlfriend Experience”
At the State Theater
3.5 out of 5 stars
There is a scene in the obnoxiously cutesy 2005 romantic comedy “Hitch” where Will Smith’s wholesome “love doctor” character is approached by a sleazy client who wants help getting laid. Smith is offended by what he sees as a gross misinterpretation of his job: He helps establish relationships with lasting connections, he argues, not meaningless sexual affairs. In the world of film, as in the real world of public consciousness, there is a very distinct ethical and emotional line between these two types of male-female interactions.
“The Girlfriend Experience” exploits — and at times silently mocks — this entire idea. Here is a film that views prostitution simply as a business, a means to an economic end that can exist side-by-side with an actual, committed relationship. The main character, Chelsea (real-life porn star Sasha Grey, whose IMDB credits include films like “Sasha Grey’s Anatomy”), is a successful New York escort. Though Chelsea never explicitly states how she bills herself to her clients, it’s implied that her appeal to them lies in something more than sex: They pay her for providing companionship and inspiring confidence. One takes her to a movie, then awkwardly tries to discuss the film with her afterward. Others just want to talk about their failing jobs and/or failing marriages.
So Chelsea’s allure must be that she gives lonely men “the girlfriend experience” for a price. The fascination of the film is that her character is also a full-time girlfriend: She’s in a long-term relationship with Chris (newcomer Chris Santos), an athletic trainer. Chris is somehow OK with her line of work, but when Chelsea decides to go on a weekend getaway with a married man she’s just met, Chris draws his line between cheating and business-as-usual.
Why is this? Perhaps it’s because she’s going with the intention of looking for something greater than a hooker-client relationship. After all, intention becomes everything when all the other elements of a relationship can be bought and sold. Perhaps the emotionally detached Chelsea has lost the ability to connect with people on a meaningful level, and perhaps Chris and all her clients have, too, because they believed in the healing power of artificial connections.
This all sounds like yet another tale about a hooker’s inner turmoil. But director Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”), using the barely-there filmmaking style he last showcased in “Bubble,” is interested in something deeper. His cast is made up of non-actors, and his unmoving camera captures their discomfort and vulnerability as they stumble over each other’s (mostly improvised) lines.
Soderbergh also overlaps conversations about the country’s economic downturn with Chelsea’s very businesslike descriptions of her clientele, and intercuts arguments about the 2008 presidential election with Chelsea’s philosophies about “personology,” a pseudo-science that she uses to predict what a client will be like before she meets him.
Yet Soderbergh’s intentions tend to vary from muddled to downright nihilistic. He may be using the parable of Chelsea and Chris to purge meaning from all relationships, as he never gives the couple an opportunity to be happy in their situation. But though a grander statement seems to be at work here, Soderbergh must realize that the film’s hard-to-swallow central conceit (a lasting relationship built around a girl who has sex for money) prevents it from working on its own terms as a realistic story. Once this becomes apparent, all the cinema verité tricks in the world won’t help.
But even if “The Girlfriend Experience” never connects with its audience on the level that Soderbergh is hoping for, it remains a fascinating specimen. Even in the very last scene, the film is challenging the way we define what constitutes a relationship and it presents the audience with different forms of male-female connection that transcend (or take the place of) sex. Hitch might rethink his own philosophy if he was ever to meet Chelsea.