THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE
1. This is not a movie about sex, as much as you might want it to be. Christine, the high-priced escort at the center of Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, doesn’t even sleep with half her clients. What she provides is security and the illusion of a human interaction that is not a transaction. That might seem strange — the notion that her clients are paying her not to seem like a hooker — but that is of course precisely why she is so successful: She is able, by mastering the opaque, vague, quiet pseudo-reassurances that everyone uses in their lives every day, to allow them to forget that they are even paying for her services. She is, like her boyfriend the physical trainer, a service done so well that it does not seem like a service at all. We all make these sorts of transactions every day, paying people to take care of things we lack the time or energy to take care of ourselves: A true professional makes sure we don’t notice.
2. The brilliance of The Girlfriend Experience — and I think, as slapdash as it is, it might be brilliant — is that is set during the exact time this whole delicate ecosystem was turned on its head: Right after the economic collapse last fall. Suddenly, no one wants to talk to Christine — and they always, always want to talk to Christine — about their wives or their work stresses or their fear of abandonment. They want to talk about their money, and how little of it is left. Their entire worlds, their whole value systems, have been blown apart, and their sessions with her are more like therapy for post traumatic stress syndrome. (As you’re probably guessing, this isn’t exactly the sexiest movie ever made.) The parallel story with Christine’s trainer boyfriend is the same thing: A client invites him on a private plane to Las Vegas for a Boy’s Weekend Out, but they spend most of the time debating the economy and the election, realizing that this sort of life cannot last much longer. Vegas is not a playland here: It is an oasis about to fade. This is a film about our time, right now: We’ve based the whole structure of everything we do on transaction and profit, and that has all been obliterated. This movie takes place before the dust has settled, when we’re hanging on to what we have while we can. It’s a period piece from six months ago. Sure Christine’s clients can cling to her now … but how much longer will they be able to afford her? How much longer will she able to afford them?
3. A little bit of this timeliness can go a long way: Soderbergh is a little too proud of himself for how quickly he pulled this film together, resorting at one point to actually showing us the date of that day’s New York Post. But he’s utilizing the freedom he has with this project to great effect: This is probably the only movie that’s going to be able to capture that heady stretch of late September and October, when you paused from watching your savings implode only to scream at either Barack Obama or Sarah Palin on the television. It’s not a film that has the benefit of hindsight or perspective, which frees us from the Oh, How Little We Knew Then! winking of most films set in the recent past. This film has been called chilly and removed, but that’s exactly how it should be: These people are ghosts who don’t realize they’re dead yet, Wile E. Coyote before he realizes there’s no ground under his feet. There is a vacancy there that has to be: Soderbergh isn’t trying to tear these people apart or make some overarching comment. What’s the room look like when all the air is let out of the room but no one has started choking yet?
4. True to the Godard-ian form Soderbergh’s going for, he tries some stunt casting with real-life porn star Sasha Grey playing Christine. If you didn’t know already she was in porn coming in, you certainly wouldn’t guess it from this, which is probably more of a compliment to Soderbergh than it is to her. He knew exactly what he needed from the actress playing Christine — icy remove, azure disposition, slightly dim optimism — and knew he’d be called a genius for extracting it from Grey. She is to this movie what she is to her clients: An obscure, fleeting object of confusion, more of fascination than of desire. She’s intriguing in this movie in the way anyone who makes us feel smart and important and worth listening without giving anything of themselves to is intriguing: In a completely empty way, but the right kind of empty way. I wouldn’t expect her to have a long career in “straight” films, but she’s perfect here.
5. There are all kinds of little plot points — Christine temporarily falling for a client, her trainer boyfriend’s struggles to deal with her “indiscretions,” a journalist following them both around for a story — that are well done but aren’t actually what this movie is about. This is a movie that deals with the sudden, terrorizing loss of something that in the long run probably isn’t spiritually important but sure does freaking sting right now. The natural order is lost, and no one knows what next to grab onto. In the film’s last scene, Christine meets a client who makes some anguished talk about the upcoming election while she strips off her clothes. The last shot is of him, desperate, yearning, simply holding onto her as if she’s the only thing keeping him from floating away. Does he end up having sex with her? I say he doesn’t. I say sex, or anything else, in the case of everyone in The Girlfriend Experience, just isn’t gonna cut it this time.
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