Director:  Steven Soderbergh  (2009)

 Chelsea – Sasha Grey;   Chris (boyfriend) – Chris Santos

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            The first 30 minutes of dialogue in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience are so closely focused on the economy that for a moment you wonder if you walked into the wrong theatre. Client after client, these men complain to Chelsea about the state of the economy, about money, investing and business, often in the foreplay of their purchased experience with her. Chelsea, professional escort, follows the same line. After each of her appointments, she catalogues the details of their time together – designer clothes, names of brands for shoes, lingerie, skirts; a checklist of outfits that reads like the factual minutes of her meeting. She focuses on the business with all the dry cataloguing of her life. She shops, prepares for her next appointment, listens blankly as her clients complain about business and money . . . she shops again. 

            Ultimately, Soderbergh’s film is a finely nuanced look at consumerism. Chelsea’s clients buy her, but not merely for the sex. There is a pseudo-life to their meetings – dinner, a movie, conversations on the couch. It becomes clear that the clients here are purchasing some simulated relationship, some life in mimicry; the ‘experience’ of a girlfriend without the reality of it. But like what is said over Chelsea’s lunch conversation (wonderfully edited in segments throughout the film), no matter how much they think they want the real Chelsea, they don’t. They are paying for her to be what they need her to be. And throughout the film, that is not so much sexual as it is a desire for some companionship, some fake relationship that they fool themselves into believing is real.

            She is a product – she is selling whatever these men want her to be. We get only tiny glimpses into Chelsea’s real self – her books, her scattered comments about her parents (she didn’t want to depend on them, wanted to make her own money), her story about Charles Barkley’s bar tab – and they show her as extremely young and immature. She sells herself as high culture and then lets her clients project that culture onto her. 

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            Chris, Chelsea’s boyfriend, is the same character only on the other side of society’s professional fence. He prostitutes his body as a trainer, he establishes business relationships with clients that pretend at friendship but that have the same underlying bind of money at its roots. His conversation with his client at the gym is about their “relationship” and “appointments.” It is spoken with the identical terminology as Chelsea’s escort services. The connection is important because it expands the isolated case of Chelsea’s profession to incorporate a society of professions. The film paints a portrait not of an escort, but of a society that prostitutes itself for consumer pleasure; a culture where life has been replaced by the false, fake experiences of customer purchase. 

            For much of the film, we are watching this constant purchase and consumption – of food and wine (in almost every scene), shops, clothes stores, markets. Chelsea prepares herself, layering on makeup as if it is a shield of cover against whatever real personality and identity lies within. She moves about hidden behind sunglasses. The conversations clients have with her are them projecting their business and culture onto her. She is this blank slate, emotionless at all times, even when Chris is telling her their relationship is over if she decides to go away for the weekend (the only rule they have that she can break). She listens completely impassively and detached. 

            The only true emotion in the entire film is something we never see – her newest client cancels their weekend because that morning, when video phoning with his daughters, the tears were streaming down his face and he realized he couldn’t go through with his simulated romance. It is that suggestion of something real, a real life with commitments and responsibilities and emotion – even when he tells her over the phone, you can feel it, almost see it, and it is like relief, like this glimpse into something real.

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            This idea of consumerism takes over the film. A package is sent to Chelsea. Soderbergh shows it several times; it arriving, placed on the counter, waiting – so much so that when she finally opens it, you expect it to hold some great secret, some insight into whom she is. It is a work of art, a gift from a client. On the surface, it explains the art on the wall, which doesn’t fit with her blank state – they were gifts, things other people liked and then projected onto her. But the print in the mail suggests more. When she opens it, her expression is completely blank, unmoved, working out the memory of who it’s from – it is just another product. It speaks of the absence of culture, to the superficial lives of everyone we’re watching. Earlier, a street drummer pounds away his beats outside a clothes store – there’s not a lot of music in the film, but it is a focus point here. At the end of the scene, Soderbergh shows the drummer working his furious rhythms and holds the shot for some time – filmed from behind so we can see that no one is watching. When he finishes his song, there is no acknowledgement, no notice from the street – he creates with all this furious energy and off it goes out into empty space. It is what has come of things. There is still art in the world, still creative souls, still energy, beauty and something real, but it goes unnoticed, unseen and unfelt, like the art work gifts. The whole film is this process, the circulation of money, the spending, and purchasing to present oneself as something desirable and better, so as to acquire money and back again, the cycle continuing, like the weekend trip to Vegas that is ‘ all the same trip, never-ending.’ If someone sits outside of it, they create in what feels like a vacuum, outside the flow of commerce and attention. 

            The film has a chilled air about it, cool, calculated, emotion-starved with the people in the film isolated and lacking some basic human relations. It is a society focused only on the economy, on money and business and consumer-based needs and fulfillment. For a film at least superficially about sex, there is a noticeable lack of feeling or warmth amongst the characters. Even the look of the film itself tends predominately towards blues and grays. When the film ends, again with an encounter surrounded by discussions of investments, gold, money, it is striking how lonely it seems: if the film, to some extent, deals with sex as a modern currency, then here is the only fulfillment we see, one fittingly based around a hug. The film deals so much with the emotional depravity of the time that here, it is just simple human contact that satisfies the client – and it seems far more needy and desperate, lonely to an isolating degree, as if sex has become this empty product and the two figures holding each other is the only feeling in the world. But he’s still paying her making the embrace false and contractual, and the image is one of awkwardness and emptiness; half naked souls acting out life, clinging to the false satisfactions of product.

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