Steven Soderbergh has no particular stylistic signature and one of the most uneven oeuvres imaginable. But he does have interests. The essence of cine Soderbergh is the application of his intelligence to a specific problem. In Che, it was the nature of a historical actor; in The Girlfriend Experience, it's the nature of acting.
The hard-core teen queen who took the name Sasha Grey and refers to her porn films as performance art here plays a paid escort called Chelsea. Working out of the posh Manhattan loft she shares with her boyfriend, a professional trainer (played by erstwhile trainer Chris Santos), Chelsea charges $2,000 an hour. For something like $25,000, a "date" with this slim, pretty, perfectly-turned-out 20-year-old can really be like a date. The movie's opening scene has the escort and her less-than-middle-aged john dining at some painfully hip boîte and discussing the movie they just saw (Man on Wire) before they retire to his pad to make out on the couch — with breakfast the next morning on the penthouse terrace. It's October 2008, the stock market is plunging, and, like most of Chelsea's clients, he feels obligated to give her investment advice.
The Girlfriend Experience is a mosaic of short, largely nonchronological scenes. Flashbacks are indistinguishable from flash-forwards; the emphasis is on Chelsea's behavior in the here and now. Soderbergh's camera placement signifies the intimacy that is the escort's product. The economic imperative rules nearly every interaction: Chelsea's capital is her body and her persona. A conscientious entrepreneur, she dutifully writes up her dates — noting her outfit (half the movie's budget must have gone for her clothes), topics of conversation, and sexual acts performed or not. She's developing her own Web site and, in addition to her accountant and a financial manager, consults some online types, including a sex critic (onetime Premiere movie critic Glenn Kenny), who offers to "up her profile" by reviewing her services on his blog.
With some clients, Chelsea plays the shrink, low-key and solicitous; with others, she's simply a source of physical comfort. With most, however, she's the ideal girlfriend — a poised and personable ingénue — which is more or less the role that Sasha Grey, reader of Thomas Pynchon, composer of "noise music," and winner of the 2008 AVN Award for Best Oral Sex Scene, has in "life."
Grey, who has let it be known that she considered taking the porn name "Anna Karina," is the only professional actor in the movie, playing a character who is always acting and who has to cope with things that might afflict any young actress. Or filmmaker. Chelsea is being pursued by a journalist (New York magazine staff writer Mark Jacobson), who wants to write a profile and seems genuinely eager to discuss her "inner you" (which is to say, the real Sasha). The movie's most shocking bit of prose, however, is the scathingly hostile critical review that starts out panning her "flat affect" and "clammy hands" before really getting personal. Finally, in the movie's key dramatic interlude, Chelsea is betrayed by a weak-willed screenwriter — art imitating life imitating (Soderbergh's) art.
No less than Che, or even the Ocean's Eleven movies, The Girlfriend Experience is a film about its own making. It's also a hall of mirrors. Are we watching an authentic sacred monster playing the part of a cute little chippie — or is it vice versa? (Imagine one performer embodying both the Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider roles in Last Tango in Paris.) Grey isn't the first porn actress to go straight, but she may be the first to allegorize her own situation — projecting an onscreen self-confidence that's indistinguishable from pathos.