HIRING Sasha Grey to play Chelsea, the lead in The Girlfriend Experience, is certainly more than just stunt casting by the wily Steven Soderbergh. Some critics are baffled as to whether Grey, a celebrated porn star, is an uninflected actress or a bad one. Let’s default for the former. Unless they possess some particular physical freak—some humungous endowment or frighteningly large breasts—no one can ascend to any position in the adult-film world if they don’t have some sort of believability.
Acting is acting. No one as blank as Grey plays it here could have lasted. That Grey harbors ambition is clear; she had plans to use the stage name “Anna Karina” in honor of Godard’s work. And Soderbergh looks out for her, pushing a chair between Grey and the camera in one moment, so Grey can use her voice instead of her face to carry a particularly tricky scene. But those who expect heat and juice from this experimental film should be warned away.
The Girlfriend Experience isn’t about sex.
It’s about a more troubling subject: money. Having a chance to hire that most intimate of orifices—an ear—some New York tycoons spend their expensive sessions with Chelsea moaning about their soon to be lost jobs. (“Thanks for listening” become the new “Thank you, ma’am.”) Set in October 2008, the film is suffused with career struggle. Everyone in this affluent world is surprised out of their consumerist torpor by the giant flushing sound of the Lehman Brothers collapse. Chelsea, too, has career worries. A younger escort seems to be scooping her regular clients. In a movie with no serious sex acts, save for one odd orgasm at the finale, it’s hard to tell how far down the line Chelsea’s boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), goes. Chris is there for consolation, and he upbraids Chelsea when she breaks an important rule of their otherwise open relationship. What’s clear is that Chris’ body is not really his own. One of the film’s few funny scenes has a gym manager wheedling Chris into wearing a corporate logo T-shirt on the job.
Does it all work? In the real world, even a Chelsea could have held her own against a predatory webmaster (channeling Laird Cregar, film critic Glenn Kenny plays a horny, back-stabbing charlatan—the one definitely amateur performance in this movie).
Soderbergh visualizes Chelsea’s world as largely bereft of natural surfaces. Mostly, we’re inside expensive boutiques—a parody of the shopping montages in Pretty Woman. Later, the dutiful record of Chelsea’s clothes, tricking and shoe-shopping are typed into a computer, against a background of McCain talk as the election rolls around. (“If I hear ‘maverick’ one more time, I’m going to throw up.”) A double-bill of this with sex, lies and videotape would reveal much about Soderbergh’s obsession with sex as performance. Loads of prostitutes onscreen, and yet there are so few films that get an authentic sense of the trade, such as might be picked up from blogs or diaries (just like the one Chelsea is writing). But it is acting; the bug-eyed sunglasses, the overmoisturized face and Chelsea’s chilly poise are all stances meant to alienate, not titillate.