All the world’s a financial transaction just waiting to be negotiated in The Girlfriend Experience, a handsome, frosty, rather one-note time capsule from October 2008. Steven Soderbergh’s latest is his second work for 2929 Entertainment (after 2005’s Bubble) to be shot on the HD fast and cheap, and to receive simultaneous premieres across theatrical, DVD, and TV platforms. And like its predecessor, as well as last year’s four-hour, two-part Che, it’s defined by emotional detachment, its story about the daily trials and tribulations of a high-class escort in Manhattan told at an impassive remove.
In a certain sense, that tenor is apt, given that Soderbergh’s portrait of Chelsea (porn star Sasha Grey)—shot primarily with rigid, static camera setups and in beautifully sleek, cool hues—casts human interaction as merely a series of rational, calculating business deals, a situation given resonance by the material’s setting during the pre-election campaign and economic meltdown. Thematically and aesthetically, the project ably holds together. Yet unlike a spiritual predecessor such as Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, Soderbergh’s aloof approach never elicits engagement with its heroine, the film so thoroughly building barriers between the external and the internal that it can be admired only as one might a department store’s striking window display.
Soderbergh’s title refers to the full-suite services of ritzy call girls like Chelsea, which include dates and mouth-kissing as well as whatever fetishistic sex a client desires. Given that no Soderbergh film has generated even a modicum of heat since George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez undressed in Out of Sight, it’s no surprise that there’s little steaminess in Girlfriend Experience, and that what minor physical contact is depicted comes off as cold, clammy, and mechanical. For the most part, Chelsea’s story involves talking shop to clients, to a reporter, and to her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who we see attempting to acquire a new job and jumpstart his athletic clothing line. The topics of conversation invariably revolve around money, or power, or the ways in which Chelsea balances her professional life and personal desires, though Soderbergh investigates these subjects with hastiness, his narrative routinely linking every character’s behavior and emotion to cash concerns, but going no further. Chelsea is the embodiment of the dehumanization of capitalism, as well as—when she’s written about nastily by a sleazy online forum webmaster (film critic Glenn Kenny, stealing the show with drawling come-ons and smack downs)—a stand-in for Soderbergh himself, another provider of gorgeous, remote entertainments.
Amplified by Limey-esque chronological fracturing and sumptuous recurring shots of Chelsea in a limo’s backseat, Girlfriend Experience offers an icy view of modern urban depersonalization, yet that chill is so pervasive that it eventually becomes a hindrance. Although there’s hardly a plot to speak of, the tale eventually hinges on Chelsea’s decision to break her own rules and go away with a new client for the weekend, damn Chris’s wishes or the risks posed by such a naked stab at finding true love. Chelsea thus finally lets her guard down and—spoilers herein—is punished accordingly, learning a lesson both she and we, at this point in the proceedings, already know: that there’s no such thing as real passion, only mutual satisfaction arranged through fiscal bargaining.
Yet during this signature moment, when his protagonist actually dares to feel something, Soderbergh finds no way to make us invested in her gambit, too thoroughly has he kept everything at arm’s length. As with the performance of Grey, whose eyes exhibit the hardness of someone well-trained in the art of living behind self-constructed walls, Girlfriend Experience bars us from entering its sphere of action, locking us out of its highly specific Obama-vs.-McCain, market-plummeting moment in time.