Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Sasha Grey
Review by Scott Johnson
Steven Soderbergh can do more with a digital camera and a few months than most directors can do with tens of millions of dollars and years of development. This should not be entirely surprising--the paradox of making films in the corporate Hollywood environment is that seemingly unlimited resources are doled out with equally unlimited strings attached. Projects are given a green light based on their expected ability to return a profit and the only predictor for future success--in business terms--is past success. Stars, directors, and of course plot lines are regurgitated from previous box office hits, although box office bombs only doom the first two but do little to halt the latter.
Producing films like The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble gives Soderbergh a limberness that the Hollywood machine does not have. Not only are these films not necessarily submitted to the arbitrary rewriting process Hollywood executives demand--if for no other reason than to show that they put their stamp on a film--but his current film has a timeliness that is unlikely to be found in Hollywood any time soon.
If you know anything about The Girlfriend Experience, it is probably that it features porn star Sasha Grey as a high-priced prostitute in New York City. The film takes place shortly between the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September and the election in November--we know this because Grey's character Chelsea spends endless hours listening to her clients complain about the economy and the bailout while giving her advice on investing and how to vote.
The fundamental insight the film portrays is the way the free market distorts personal and sexual relationships. This is not entirely original--Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made this same insight over 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto, describing how the capitalist class turns women into commodities:
[I]t is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.
More recently, this same point was made by a prostitute interviewed by Studs Terkel in his oral history Working, who describes how women "hustle" legally all the time:
A hustler is any woman in American society. I was the kind of hustler who received money for favors granted rather than the type of hustler who carefully reads a women's magazine and learns what it is proper to give for each date, depending on how much money her date or trick spends on her.
What makes the film uniquely clever, though, is the way that this insight shapes the story. There are a surprising number of scenes in which our expectations are turned on their head--we come to expect that every man she talks to is a client, but it turns out that one is her boyfriend, another a journalist interviewing her, and yet another is working for Chelsea, not vice-versa. One of the best scenes involves film critic Glenn Kenny, whose character we think we have pinned down several times before we actually find out his real purpose for meeting with her. The conclusion to their meeting provides a bitter satire on the self-important critic.
It has been suggested that Grey's experience in pornography makes her particularly apt for this role and there is certainly some truth in that. As a young woman who sells her sexuality, she certainly knows something about the world Chelsea inhabits. But Grey's recent interview with RottenTomatoes.com suggests that she is an intelligent, experienced actress who did not simply fall ass-backwards into serious acting.
She does not exhibit the sort of confident emotional range of other serious young actresses, but I could not possibly imagine an Ellen Page or Anne Hathaway in this role. Grey has the sort of restrained, near-confident shyness that a 21-year-old inhabiting a foreign and intimidating world typically shows. She does not create a thoroughly nuanced and vibrant character--rather, she acts like a young woman who is smart and confident but also somewhat in over her head and keeps the men in her life--her clients and her boyfriend--at arms length. This may be the result of a nervous young actress working with a world-class director, but it creates an authenticity that is perfect for Chelsea's character. With a few exceptions, we never feel like we quite understand her feelings--whether she is enjoying herself or just going through the motions. But I suppose the men in her life feel the same way as we do.
The "girlfriend experience" that Chelsea is selling is about more than just sexual intercourse, although that is always hanging in the background of every one of her relationships. Terkel's prostitute describes this in her own experiences:
The favors I granted were not always sexual. When I was a call girl, men were not paying for sex. They were paying for something else. They were either paying to act out a fantasy or they were paying for companionship or they were paying to be seen with a well-dressed young woman. Or they were paying for somebody to listen to them.
This reality underscores how the combination of economics and sexuality distorts a young woman's relationships with men, which is the question explored throughout the movie. Chelsea's interactions show that "prostitution" occurs not only at the intersection of sex and money but often in interactions when only one of the two is present. The final scene also humorously raises the question of what can actually be considered "sex"--Bill Clinton's definition notwithstanding--in a world of alienation and personal isolation.
This scene--and the film, appropriately--ends far too soon.