Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience is set in the habitats of the fabulously wealthy, in penthouses, posh restaurants, and corporate offices, primarily in Chicago, with a brief excursion to Toronto. Creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, who wrote every episode together, alternating directing duties, riff on Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name, borrowing its scenario and a variation of its visual scheme, particularly the film’s preoccupation with the color and geometric dimensions of luxury spaces. The settings are enviably comfortable and privileged, yet oppressively perfect. When characters are, say, having a hundred-dollar drink in a bar, one’s primed to notice the sensually chilly blue and green hues of the cinematography, as well as the symmetrical precision of the way the liquor bottles are lined up on the shelves.
Kerrigan and Seimetz often allow the settings to dwarf the characters, favoring long shots in which people navigate labyrinths of glass, steel, and rich wood. Blurry shots intensify this sense of anonymity, as characters are blotted out, assumed into a larger visual fabric. The program’s chic, streamlined aesthetic cumulatively boasts an impression of metallic coldness that’s both frightening and intensely attractive. The imagery is gorgeous yet curt and pared down, with jagged editing complementing the declaratory dialogue and Shane Carruth’s spare score. The characters are living what we assume is the American dream of unchecked success, yet they seem trapped and alienated.
Like Soderbergh’s film, the series follows a high-priced escort as she services her clients. Unlike the film, we’re given bits and pieces of this woman’s backstory, as well as the origin of her initiation into the profession. The escort’s real name is Christine (Riley Keough), a second-year student at Chicago-Burnham Law School who nets a coveted internship at the firm of Kirkland & Allen. Christine resembles a lot of young, intelligent people struggling to make a name for themselves in corporate society, as she’s mired in debt and resentful of the hypocritical processes inherent to self-made success, such as the interviews in which companies expect, in Christine’s words, “to hear their own words repeated back to them.”
Christine’s drawn into escorting by an acquaintance, Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil), who casually boasts of her rich boyfriends and their baubles. Avery is an escort who provides “the girlfriend experience” for thousands of dollars per hour, which means that she’s a long-term prostitute who offers clients a greater illusion of intimacy than is normally associated with the profession, which doesn’t strictly pertain to sex. Christine, mercilessly pragmatic, doesn’t buy into society’s skittishness about the sex trade, particularly on such a lucrative level of engagement. She’s a profoundly beautiful woman, with an ambiguously hard-edged aura of sexuality that’s ahead of her age and representative of her intelligence as well as her disenchantment from her social station. Why shouldn’t she profit from the gifts and talents available to her? Isn’t that the self-actualizing promise of the American dream?
Kerrigan and Seimetz, two independent filmmakers overseeing a mainstream project for the first time in their careers, walk a tonal tightrope. They clearly don’t wish to fall into the moralizing trap of judging Christine, or pitying her, by providing a pat “explanation” for her attraction to the sex trade. Instead, they settle on an aura of erotic melancholia that plays to their own gifts for behavioral portraiture while honoring the broad tropes of the corporate sex thriller. The film was unsatisfyingly vague about sex, more interested in Soderbergh’s characteristic explorations of the varying manifestations of capitalism. It was formally impressive but self-conscious, intellectualized, and ultimately uncomfortable with its premise, while the series dives into the sex, daring to locate Soderbergh’s capitalist themes between the sheets.