It’s ironic that Rowan and I didn’t pay for The Girlfriend Experience. We made our way to the cinema through the worst kind of storm (the sort that lasts only as long as it takes you to get from point A to B) to see Ponyo, only to find that it had been cancelled due to an accidental double booking for a festival called “Queerdoc”, which I’m assuming was tonight featuring a documentary about lesbians.
They said that they were sorry, but that they could comp us tickets to anything else that night. Not willing to wait around two and a half hours to see the late Ponyo, we decided to see The Girlfriend Experience instead. Then, during dinner, I realised that this was still a Soderbergh movie, and that it would finish in time for the late showing of Ponyo. We bought tickets for Ponyo before we went into The Girlfriend Experience, and I’ll be honest: I spent a great deal of The Girlfriend Experience looking forward to seeing Ponyo.
Rowan said, at the end of the screening, that “it’s the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that I didn’t like at least a part of”. I’m not that extreme, but really: The Girlfriend Experience is like a more airheaded, shallow version of Gawker. The sad fact is that the movie seems to reflect a certain reality: people like this exist, and they’re just as horrible as they appear on the screen.
The Girlfriend Experience is the “story” of Christine/Chelsea (porn star Sasha Grey in what is credited as her first “mainstream” role – but her other work has probably reached a wider audience and was easier to appreciate), an escort who has a boyfriend. According to press materials this film showcases five days in her life.
It’s not told in a linear fashion and is interspersed with seemingly pointless scenes from a private jet being flown to Vegas. The dialogue is so real it hurts – painful in its banality and circularity. The realisation of The Girlfriend Experience is that Soderbergh has somehow used banality to draw attention away from the film’s banality. It’s a master work, to a certain definition of both of the words in that term. Soderbergh cuts away to different parts of the same encounters, each scene basically a reiteration of a previous one with boring clients who shed no light on either themselves or on Chelsea’s profession. He distracts with vaguely interesting cinematography, but it’s not enough.
When people aren’t talking about the nature of Chelsea’s job, they’re talking about the economy and how they’re all doing so poorly. It’s exactly what my nightmare of high pretentious society talk looks like, and it plays out on the big screen. What no one seems to have told these people is that it’s incredibly difficult to feel sympathy for someone complaining about the downturn in their personal fortunes when they’re relating it to you from their private jet flying to Vegas. This is a reality, true, but not all realities demand being committed to celluloid. Not everyone that you want to punch in the face needs their screen time.
When we are talking about Chelsea’s job, we are made to judge. In reality, this is a subject I’ve read a fair bit about as part of the background noise of life. It’s not something that I think is necessarily an evil of society, but the participants here: white slaver and “connoisseur”, creepy close attached guy, foot fetishist, screenwriter and … Frenchman … are all so vapid and bland that you can’t help but think them pathetic. To be honest I’ve never cast my mind as far as to actually think that much on “hobbyists”, but The Girlfriend Experience sells them as horrors from the deep, and honestly they’re all that Chelsea really deserves.
The boyfriend plot is weak, and the boyfriend is honestly a worse person than Chelsea could ever hope to be. He’s a pretentious personal trainer who doesn’t, like, play by the “rules”, man. Why should he have to wear a “uniform” to his “job”, man? He doesn’t need to be “branded” by “society”, man. Actually, he would have been so much cooler if that was how he actually spoke. What I’ve written is a pretty accurate representation of the guy’s essence, and it is a mark of my disdain for him that I could not be bothered looking up his name.
In the final analysis, Chelsea, her boyfriend, his friends and most of her clients are absolutely detestable. A movie can function with unlikable characters, but this one dies by them. The acting is fine, but acting cannot always overcome dismal themes and scripting. It’s written naturally, but natural dialogue frequently isn’t the greatest fit for the cinema and this is the same here. Sasha Grey could conceivably make it as a “real” actor (who says that pornography isn’t a legitimate outlet for the dramatic urges?), but Soderbergh does her no favours here: she fails to carry a piece that collapses under its own leaden pretentiousness. The male actors, while serviceable (hah!) look so alike as to be interchangeable – although I suppose this may have been the point.
The Girlfriend Experience chooses to end around the time an overweight Zionist Republican shows his hand, and Chelsea shows her leopard-print clad buttocks. By this point they’ve worn out their welcome: has Chelsea ruined her chances for a happy relationship with her boyfriend? It’s hard to tell, certainly, and much harder to give a damn.