The Girlfriend Experience is only 76 minutes, so when you realize that you are going to need to watch it again, take solace in knowing that two views is only as much time as one fairly long movie. The first time, you will find yourself struggling to keep up with who our protagonist, an expensive New York City call-girl (porn star Sasha Grey) is interacting with. This is because The Girlfriend Experience crosscuts several timelines taking place in the lives of the same characters over a week. Unless you have a great eye for designer clothing, you probably won’t know in which day each particular scene occurs, and it’s not even apparent that the timeline isn’t chronological until around the halfway point. The film’s style, consisting mostly of dimly lit longshots and restrained acting, is no more accessible. But the second time around, you’ll be more prepared to decode storytelling method, adapted to Steven Soderbergh’s alienating aesthetic, and ready to understand the characters pinpoint the themes. If you go the extra mile, the rewards are worth it.
The call-girl, who goes by Chelsea (but is likely named Christine), doesn’t say much more than “I would see the movie again” or “it’s good wine” when she is on her “dates.” Occasionally she asks about her clients’ family, and they don’t seem too bothered, perhaps because she is more a psychologist for people too proud to admit they need one than a prostitute. I suppose if they weren’t using her to vent worries about the economy or their business they might be concerned about her lack of engagement, but we get the impression that these are lonely men, and any kind of companionship, no matter how illusory, will do. Chelsea doesn’t care whether her clients would rather complain about the economy or have sex with her, she just wants to increase her earnings.
It is very hard to understand Chelsea, who recounts her outings (and the outfit she wore on them) in wooden monologue completely devoid of insight and deflects every potentially revealing question with variations of “I deal with it” and “no.” Chelsea’s tendency to sidestep tough questions tells us something about her, but not enough for us to invest in her as a character. She’s more an object of perplexity than one of sympathy or intellectual understanding. But if we conclude she’s too shallow for sympathy or understanding, too much of a hustler, then so is everyone else. Her clients must be having some kind of family or business issue, and her boyfriend hits up his boss for more money, goes to other companies for a better job, and lets rich suitors take him to Vegas. Chelsea is hustling, but she surrounds herself with whores. Once again, Soderbergh’s narrative jumble gives us this information far before the characters realize it, and our wisdom lets us examine the quiet desperation crawling up to the surface of these lives. We realize far before they do that the life of the individual is sometimes not entirely in their hands. Soderbergh gives us knowledge and trusts us to use it to continuously probe his characters. That his characters do not contain the depth that this requires does not demerit the innovations in form or subject matter, nor does it make the style anything other than a brilliant reflection of the distance and loneliness these characters live in. Its shortcomings are frustrating, but mostly because they seem to be so close to greatness, as if we have everything we need to invest ourselves except for one key ingredient.
With so much going on at once, from Chelsea’s dates to her interview with a journalist to her attempts to market herself to her boyfriend looking for a new job and all of the clients, The Girlfriend Experience proves itself to be quite ambitious thematically. It doesn’t fully tap anything it suggests—the prostitution/capitalism allegory, loneliness, finding or recognizing love—but it does approach all of these from a unique angle. More importantly, the vagueness, especially Grey’s blank-canvas look and inflection, actually creates an intrigue that works around the emotional void. It’s easy to dwell over what The Girlfriend Experience isn’t, or what it almost is, but what it is has its own set of rewards.
The Girlfriend Experience certainly gives you a lot to think about, whether it be Chelsea’s profession, her attempt to balance it with a real relationship, or the insecurity of the men who hire her. If you want answers, you will be as frustrated intellectually as you are emotionally, but if you can settle for a few vague hints and buy into Soderbergh’s experimental form and alienating style, you might find yourself on a worthy train of thought. Everything there is to say about The Girlfriend Experience is derived from its form and its style. Acting, lighting, and even casting (film critic Glenn Kenny plays everything except the plot and the script as a whole tells us something new. While this makes for an underdeveloped character study, it also makes for a fascinating snapshot of a specific political climate. It’s a very innovative picture, a breath of fresh air, and I cannot think of another one like it. There are glimpses of something special, and if Soderbergh had a bit more money and spent four weeks instead of two to film, that something might be fulfilling instead of just thought-provoking.