As I watched Steven Soderbergh’s latest, I couldn’t help thinking back to John Lennon’s Instant Karma for a variety of reasons. The principle one involves the no-nonsense, no-frills expedience with which each work of art was created. Lennon recorded the song the day he composed it and had it in record stores less than a week and a half later. “I wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch and we’re putting it out for dinner,” he joked.
The Girlfriend Experience/a> is the product of a similarly accelerated mind-to-marketplace process. The shape-shifting director (Traffic, Bubble, Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen) shot the film over a few weeks last fall on a shoestring using a portable high-definition video camera and a primarily nonprofessional cast. He’s had it available through video on demand since early this spring. By motion picture standards, that’s about as instant as it gets.
Audience members may experience an occasionally disorienting sense that the movie must have been made by time-traveling auteurs from another planet. That’s because it’s set during the weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential election; I don’t know about you, but that feels like practically yesterday to me. For the most part, the film’s characters have two things on their minds: politics and the economic meltdown. Which is ironic, considering this is a film about a high-end call girl and her customers.
The central character is a 21-year-old Manhattan escort who is paid $2000 per hour for the illusion of intimacy. By that I mean not simply sex, but companionship, attentiveness, conversation and canoodling — the girlfriend experience. Her name is Chelsea, and she is played by real-life porn star Sasha Grey.
The picture chronicles approximately a week in Chelsea’s life. Throughout the opening sequence, in which she and a date take in a showing of Man on Wire, discuss it over dinner at a chic restaurant and then retire to a homey hotel room to make out, drink wine and discuss the economy, we assume the two are a couple. It isn’t until a thick envelope of cash changes hands the next morning that we realize business has been conducted — and that her affection was an act.
In the course of the film, we watch as Chelsea meets with all manner of clients. Many are needy or neurotic (I’m pretty sure a high-powered financial trader sports a giant diaper in one scene). All are rich and frantically scrambling to stay that way. Two other men figure prominently. One is a journalist interviewing Chelsea for a piece on the GFE phenomenon (he’s played by New York magazine writer Mark Jacobson). The other is her live-in boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a gym trainer who’s been with her for 18 months and pretends her job doesn’t bother him.
This is a character study more than a story in the traditional sense. To the extent there’s a narrative arc at all, it concerns the cute, confident businesswoman’s gradual realization that she may not be quite as in control of her world as she heretofore believed. A younger woman is cutting into her market share. Complications arise when she gives a relationship with a client the chance to become something more. Her livelihood is threatened as the result of an unfortunate interaction with a sleazeball who writes “reviews” of New York City prostitutes.
For reasons that will become obvious, this is my favorite part of the film. Former Premiere movie critic Glenn Kenny creates this gloriously slimy Sidney-Greenstreet-meets-Larry-Flynt sort of creep who presides over a website called The Erotic Connoisseur. Chelsea is promised a rave in exchange for a freebie, something goes horribly wrong, and she ends up getting viciously panned. Brilliant concept, tremendously entertaining performance.
Working with the unlikely team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who wrote the latest Ocean’s sequel), Soderbergh has dashed off a provocative vérité comment on a culture in which everything is for sale and nothing is safe from a downturn. Grey’s character learns a thing or two about karma the hard way, as well. The commodity of youth, for example, maintains its market value for only so long, and cynically living life as though human feelings were for saps can come back to bite you the day you finally feel like being human.
Her beauty, independence and stock portfolio notwithstanding, Chelsea’s tale is a timely, tragic one told with typical Soderbergh finesse — a sly, sleek merger of sex, lies and hi-def video.