When The Girlfriend Experience, prolific director Steven Soderbergh’s 19th film, was released in 2009, the experimental film caused quite a stir. Not because it was an arthouse flick directed by a major Hollywood player, or not even because it was one of the first films shot entirely on the new Red One camera. The controversy that accompanied the film’s premiere was due in large part to one name: Sasha Grey.
The actress Soderbergh had chosen to play the lead in his film wasn’t quite classically trained. In fact, she wasn’t much of an actress at all– she was porn star Sasha Grey. Grey had achieved some mainstream celebrity outside of porn after appearing in an American Apparel ad campaign, but being hand-picked to play the lead in a highly respected and Oscar-winning director’s film launched the actress into a kind of public dialogue that many in the entertainment community weren’t quite ready for. What did the apparent legitimization of an actress with no proven ability to actually act mean for a business built on telling compelling stories?
Soderbergh insisted that his decision to pull from the world of porn to complete his cast had everything to do with the immediate sense of reality he wanted to bring to the story. Indeed, casting pornstar Grey was probably a wise choice because she could probably relate on a more profound level to the film’s protagonist, Chelsea. The Girlfriend Experience recounts the story of a high-end escort living and working in New York City in October 2008, a month before the pivotal Presidential elections. What sets Chelsea apart from the typical escort is not only her price range, but the experience she provides to her chic clientele– something she has termed “the girlfriend experience”. Well groomed, well dressed, well read, and skilled in conversation, Chelsea is able to provide the men who pay for her services with quality companionship, in addition to sex. She molds herself into everything her clients want, both physically and mentally, without the challenges and difficulties that a real relationship poses. She listens to her clients concerns about their difficulties in the recession and their worries about the pending election, offering well-rounded answers regurgitated from the newspaper, but never really expresses an opinion. Opinions, after all, are threatening. That all changes though when Chelsea meets Tim, a writer from LA hires the escort for the day. After a rough week with her live-in boyfriend Chris, and a particularly bad review from an online escort blogger, Chelsea’s facade cracks and she finds herself opening up to, and falling for, Tim. When he invites her to spend the weekend with him, Chelsea has to decide if providing the girlfriend experience is more damaging to her than she ever anticipated.
The Girlfriend Experience raises a lot of important concepts for female viewers in particular, especially in the modern age when high-end escorts such as Heidi Fleiss and Ashley Dupre are celebrated for daring to make a public brand out of their private profession. Chelsea is a seemingly intelligent young woman like the vast majority of most women in New York City. She is in a fairly normal, loving relationship and has aspirations of taking her career to the next level, planning to open a boutique with her earnings. She makes calculated decisions about her career– planing her website, working out religiously, and grooming a fashionable and sophisticated presence.
As an independent female viewer living in New York City herself, I found myself believing that Chelsea’s dedication to her job was not unlike that of any other working woman, no matter their profession. Her drive to create the brand of “Chelsea” reminded me a lot of quasi-celebrities, a perfect example being Heidi Montag. We’ve all been privy to Montag’s recent knifed-up disastrous surgeries, her latest move on a quest to profit in the long term off the brand of “Heidi”. With more and more people (particularly reality TV stars) being paid hefty sums to open up every aspect of their private lives and create a for-sale fantasy out what was once sacred, I began to wonder, what really separates the character of Chelsea from someone like Montag, or even someone like Grey herself? Has the line been blurred so badly in our society that the act of acquiring money has become more interesting than how that money is acquired?
Creating a Chelsea with a sophisticated and dazzling sense of style is an important tactic that The Girlfriend Experience uses to explore that question. The escort’s chic look is what every man–and woman–fantasizes about. With each client date she embarks on, Chelsea reveals what she was wearing: “Kiki De Montparnass lingerie” or “Michael Kors shoes”. From elegant handbags to an expertly fitted, A-line Breakfast at Tiffany’s LBD, Chelsea’s fashion sells the fantasy of high-end respectability. Everything she wears is sleek, fit to flatter her figure, and exclusive. Her sophisticated sense of style allows Chelsea to truly become the “girlfriend experience” that men want and women want to be. Her character is often depicted shopping at trendy boutiques that most of us can only dream of stepping foot in. It’s not an outlandish shopping spree for Chelsea, it’s a way of life and a staple in her day. The fantasy that fashion creates is key to the movie’s ability to question the allure of the fantasy lifestyle. I found myself wanting to shop with Chelsea, not scold her for shopping with prostituted money!
Ultimately, The Girlfriend Experience never quite gives us an answer as to whether Chelsea breaks free of the fantasy she has created for herself. And, until the very end of the movie, we are living that fantasy life right alongside her. Althoug the consequences of the real world–the recession and the election–are main undercurrents in the f ilm that pop up more than frequently, we pay little attention to them because the allure of fantasy is so strong.
Whether you like Sasha Grey’s performance or not (I personally found her to do very well with layering subtle emotions), The Girlfriend Experience is an important film for women in particular to see because it asks us to consider, as women, what costs come with the weight of being self-sufficient and independent.
Peep the trailer below, and make sure to Netflix this complex movie.
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