REVIEW: The Girlfriend Experience [2009]

“If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn’t be paying you”

I like the Ocean’s movies as much as the next guy, but something about Steven Soderbergh’s indie films show how much of a paycheck job those blockbusters are. His artistic endeavors may not always work—see the disappointing Ché Parts 1 & 2—but they do consistently show an auteur trying something new, challenging himself and his viewers. I have not yet seen Bubble, but 2009 brings us his second feature under the HDMovies deal, bringing his films to theatre, DVD, and TV simultaneously. That film is The Girlfriend Experience starring pornstar Sasha Grey as sophisticated escort Chelsea and her struggles in a Depression-era NYC weeks before the Presidential election. Juxtaposing her job with that of her personal trainer boyfriend—yes, the “legal” hooker has a live-in significant other; strange indeed—we catch a glimpse into the world of high-class, high-salary business and how the economy effects both them and their clients much like it does the little man such as us.

The title is an interesting choice because Grey’s escort doesn’t really play the girlfriend to any of her clients onscreen. Mostly being used as a prostitute to men who have left their wives and children at home, her only real need to be the girlfriend is with her man Chris. This then begs the question on whether her relationship with him is also just another job. More a situation of convenience, Grey’s penchant for her astrology books soon becomes more important than Chris and what they have together. One could have called the film The Boyfriend Experience because it is he—actor Chris Santos—that plays the part. She is with a different man each night, so she needs that one constant to come home to. He fills that role in her life, him being there is her payment for sex rather than the money of her true clients. If she is willing to wreck a year and a half of what they have had together in order to “see” what may come of a new client she has met once, a client married with two little girls, you know that it has all been just a game.

The economy has caused financial security to be in limbo for everyone, but it has also left the permanence of love in the fringes as well. Much like Grey’s Chelsea is attempting to branch out and start a clothing boutique, not to mention expand her own escort service, Chris is trying to get a fitness line of clothes into stores on consignment if not fulltime while also shopping himself around to other gyms in the city in order to find more money. Insecurity for the future pushes them into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Chelsea is meeting with a sleazy message board operator to try and expand her exposure, having to satisfy him in order to do so and Chris is going behind the back of the gym he isn’t even willing to wear a uniform for, but which he hopes to find a managerial position with. Their personal life is not untouched, however, as Grey still looks to her customers as possible love interests, serious enough to leave her constant behind without batting an eye and Santos is propositioned to go on a guy’s trip to Vegas with a client—something he is willing to pass up because his girl disapproves. But then why would she be so confused when he threatens to leave her if she goes away on weekend with a customer of her own?

I do not use the word proposition lightly either. Soderbergh appears to intentional show how similar these two characters are. Both are setting up appointments for clients; both are in the business of getting to know each personally, keeping a good rapport to help facilitate the want for future engagements. Chelsea whores out her body to satisfy men’s sexual desires and Chris pimps out his to satisfy his gym members’ need to feel good about themselves and their physiques. Both are asked to take out of town trips and both try to set themselves apart from the competition, whether other gyms or the new girl on the escort circuit. These two actors do an admirable job in their conflicted and troubled parts. They may not be quite professionals in the craft, nor does Grey quite deserve the universal praise that seems to be piling up, but they do effectively portray these roles.

In a climate that has customers on both ends in serious discussion about the upcoming election and diminishing profits from years past, (Chris’s business friends taking him to Vegas continue to talk politics and Chelsea’s men either try and tell her how to liquidate her funds or who to vote for, that is when they aren’t on their phones while she waits in lingerie in the next room), these two are very much the exact same person. In reality, the only difference between them is that he is genuine in his love for Grey while she appears to have only a fleeting desire in him. So, I guess the title works better than I had previously thought. She is giving him the girlfriend experience, even if she does so unintentionally. Karma has its way of getting back at you, though, and Grey’s mistakes and hubris soon catch up to her. While business may be booming—for now, as that message boarder’s review may hurt a bit—her personal life is falling apart all around her. We may worry about how the economy will affect our livelihood and not see how unimportant it all is. If we don’t find and hold onto the love in our lives, whether family, friends, etc., all the success in the world monetarily won’t mean a thing.

The Girlfriend Experience 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
Sasha Grey stars as Chelsea in Magnolia Pictures’ The Girlfriend Experience (2009) Copyright © Magnolia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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