Back in high school, my boyfriend and I went to see a movie. I think it was The Big Lebowski. Anyway, there was a preview for some Belle de Jour wannabe, where the main character had to class herself up (read books and such) to be what amounted to a high-class hooker. A courtesan, she called it. My boyfriend found this hilarious, and proceeded to narrate his own version of the trailer in a high-pitched English accent. (Remember, we were 17 and 18 at the time--this passed for humor. Hell, it's still kinda funny.) I just thought the whole idea was stupid. A prostitute is a prostitute, right? (Cue Chef from South Park and his hilarious ditty about ladies of the night.) You have sex, you get paid. Doesn't matter how educated or well-dressed or awesome you are. Or does it?
The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh's new experimental drama, explores that issue in a surprisingly non-graphic, strangely timely and semi-meta way. Was it a flawless piece of awesomeness, worthy of every indie award in the book? No. Was it haunting, disturbing, and really, really interesting? Definitely.
Here's the non-spoiler-rific plot: Chelsea/Christine (she is called both in the course of the movie) is young, gorgeous and smart. She shares a to-die-for NYC apartment with her devoted, enterprising boyfriend, wears beautiful clothes, and brunches and drinks with the best of 'em. The catch? Chelsea is a prostitute. But not just any prostitute: she caters to high society dudes, e.g. Gotham moguls, L.A. screenwriters, Jewish business owners. In other words, suits. Many of them are married, some of them have kids, at least one of them has a wife who not only knows about Chelsea, but has become, um, intimately acquainted with her. She rides around in an elegant black car with an unseen driver to dark bars, bright restaurants and high-class hotels, and narrates her exploits in terms of what she wore (down to the designer undies), what they talked about (her clients often recommend where Chelsea should invest her money and what Presidential candidate she should vote for), and what they did (she basically serves as a talk therapist for one particularly neurotic gentleman).
According to the trivia page on IMDb, an escort who promises a "girlfriend experience" goes beyond the normal services. She's essentially a companion--if we're to use period-film language, more of a courtesan than a whore. She will also do things such as deep kissing and other intimacies that lower-rent red-light district regulars won't provide.
Chelsea's been with her live-in boyfriend about a year and a half, and he understands what she does--at the end of the day, she comes home to him. She has a good friend in the same line of work who knows where she's coming from. Recently, a journalist has become interested in her experiences and is interviewing her for an article. Overall, she's cool and detached--until two complications arise.
One, the economy is in the crapper. (The entire 80-something minute film takes place over a period of five days in late October 2008--so it's timely now but destined to be a dated period piece.) Chelsea keeps business records and has a website, but doesn't exactly charge JT LeRoy truck-stop rates. In other words, she's pretty expensive, in a time when recreational budgets are falling by the wayside. And there are always new chicks on the scene who are younger, thinner and probably cheaper than she.
Two, Chelsea gets a call from a potential client, and they connect on a personal level. Chelsea likes most of her clients. However, she likes this guy. And what's more--based on an analysis of his birth date and stats that she calls "personology," Chelsea thinks the relationship could progress beyond a simple transaction. When he asks her to go away for a weekend (completely against her policy), should she risk her steady relationship with a man who blew off a boys-only weekend in Vegas because she was uncomfortable with it? Or should she throw caution to the wind, possibly leaving the "girlfriend" life behind?
Told in snippets going forward and backward in time, The Girlfriend Experience can be a little hard to follow. With her deadpan voice and large, blank eyes, Chelsea is essentially a white screen on which her clients can project whatever they want. She's not spunky or sarcastic, at times she's not very likable. Her customers aren't hot--they're neurotic and hairy. And her boyfriend may be tolerant, but he has his limits--and I had to ask myself what kind of person would be okay with a significant other who sells sex for a living.
So why did I like this movie? Essentially, it is fair. I don't mean so-so, I mean just. Face it, the sex industry is fascinating--read Candy Girl or The Vagina Monologues. Not every woman goes into it with daddy issues and a drug problem: many are college-educated, enterprising, and conscious of the decisions they are about to make. Morality aside, it's a business, with its own ups and downs--and it, too, is affected by a bad economy.
Chelsea is who she is. We're never told how she got into this line of work, and we know she aspires to own a fashion boutique, but that's pretty much it. She eats brunch, she buys clothes. When her personal feelings start interfering with work, she gets into trouble. Just like most of us at some point or another.
Soderbergh doesn't glamorize the sex industry, nor does he exploit it. There's no nudity, and we only see underwear a few times. Yeah, the dialogue is pretty frank, as you'd expect--but there are no sex scenes. There's one hug, and one kiss, the latter between Chelsea and her boyfriend, that the viewer sees. The rest? Behind closed doors, and left to the imagination. It's incredibly effective, like Hitchcock with lace panties. (There's a mental image.)
In an inspired bit of casting, Sasha Grey plays Chelsea. I had no idea who Sasha Grey was until this movie came out. Turns out, Sasha Grey is a 21-year-old who has made some interesting career decisions of her own: not only is she a prominent porn actress, but she has made her reputation doing things that are very hardcore. She represents herself, has her own agency in L.A., has been featured on Tyra, and is working on a documentary about being a young porn star (she started at age 18). Like Chelsea, she's a self-made woman who saw a niche and sought to fill it (no pun intended). Unlike, say, someone like Gwyneth Paltrow or Vanessa Hudgens, Sasha Grey is familiar with the industry of the character she's portraying. Very intimately so.
Do I recommend this movie? Yes. It's not for the faint of heart, but it's a fresh and profound glimpse into the world's oldest profession. In a word, The Girlfriend Experience is stimulating. Intellectually, people. Intellectually.