The old adage dictates that money can’t buy happiness, but anyone without money can say with all certainty that it sure makes it a hell of a lot easier. That saying is predicated on two core assumptions, both of which Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience effectively overturns. The first is that having things — material possessions, baubles, immediate luxuries — will not bring a person any sort of profound, meaningful contentment. Christine, a.k.a. Chelsea, the high-price escort that former adult film starlet Sasha Grey portrays in the film, might beg to differ. She meticulously catalogues the clothes she wears on her various appointments like they’re armor, noting the names Kors, Chanel, and Louboutin as if they possess power even on the printed page. The second is that money can only be used to purchase things, items that sit idly around a house, providing no consolation whatsoever. But In The Girlfriend Experience, everything has a price tag.
The Girlfriend Experience was doomed to be written off as one of Soderbergh’s experimental vanity projects from the very outset, its low-budget Handicam aesthetic and lack of name-brand actors (with the highly significant exception of Ms. Grey) alienating many of the director’s faithful followers. But while the stylistic boundary-pushing and unorthodox narrative methods may have positioned this film for accusations of disposability from its detractors, the film’s understanding of the intersection between commerce and romance has revealed itself to be more prescient with every passing year. With Grey as his guide, Soderbergh infiltrates the upper echelon of New York society and finds a hidden world where everything can be automated and accessed on demand, whether that means love, power, or integrity. Money might not be able to buy happiness, but that still leaves quite a bit worth buying.
Grey’s character is no simple prostitute; she’s a woman of a distinct caliber, offering more than a crass meetup at a dingy hotel. The sexual aspect is but a single component of what Christine provides when she assumes her secret identity as Chelsea. Her clients pay out the nose for the titular experience, the simulacrum of companionship that she dutifully playacts by listening attentively and patiently as they prattle on about their jobs, their lives, or the future. Chelsea goes out for full engagements, attending dinner, drinks or dancing in addition to catering to the various sexual preferences of her clientele. Soderbergh includes liberal swatches of dialogue in which Chelsea and her male patrons simply shoot the bull, with no explicitly transactional tone involved — one man complains about lackluster sales at work, another advises Chelsea to invest in gold. To the men, they’re conversing as one human being to another. But Chelsea never gets lost in the woods and forgets the fundamental gap between customer and servant.
The constant element threading these dialogues together, and connecting Chelsea’s plotline to the goings-on that occupy her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), is the driving motivator of fiscal gain. Both Chelsea and Chris are in the business of monetizing the illusion of sincere affection within a specifically defined transaction. Chelsea offers an escort service that purports to be something more, and Chris is a personal trainer at a gym, where he gets all buddy-buddy with fitness nuts in an effort to secure a two-year commitment and the hefty check that goes with it. They both harbor greater ambitions, too: Chris dreams of starting a facility of his own, while Christine only assumes her Chelsea persona so that she can save up enough to open a luxury clothing store. It turns out that Chris and Christine are a well-matched couple, so like-minded in their pursuit of the almighty dollar that Chris readily turns a blind eye to Christine’s outings as Chelsea.
At least, up until a point. Soderbergh keeps his dramatic motion at a low simmer throughout most of the film, with the widespread unrest of the 2007 financial crisis and the impending 2008 Presidential election rumbling around the fringes, socioeconomic storm clouds gathering on the horizon. But Soderbergh doesn’t have the time in this svelte 77-minute film to wait for the effects of the shifting tectonic plates of American culture to affect Christine and Chris, and so he introduces immediate conflict that replicates the same thematic concerns. Christine realizes that she’ll have to make a dramatic move if she wants to bring her aspirations to fruition, and agrees to sit down with a skeevy critic of escorts who goes by “The Erotic Connoisseur.” (Adding yet another layer of metatext to a film that courts a complex relationship with reality, Soderbergh cast actual film critic Glenn Kenny as the lecherous appraiser of prostitutes.) He makes Chelsea an offer that she’s not entirely sure she can afford to refuse: one weekend on a sheik’s pleasure yacht, with the opportunity to make kaboodles of money and establish some promising connections. But before she can even consider that option, the Connoisseur requests a bit of try-before-you-buy action with Chelsea, a prospect twice as unsavory.
At this point in the film, Soderbergh’s eye-catching choice to cast Sasha Grey reveals itself to be more than what David Foster Wallace would call “metafictional titty-pinching.” Soderbergh didn’t hire Grey for her skills as an actress or as a sex-haver. Grey appears nude for a surprisingly brief duration in a film about sex, and doesn’t engage in any explicit sexual activity onscreen. And Grey hardly brings any gravitas as a thespian to her role. Quite the opposite, in fact — she delivers her every line with a flat, affectless tone that can’t even muster the disdain to convey boredom. It conveys nothing whatsoever, which is precisely the intended effect. Grey, both in this role and in her capacity as a fixture of the world of smut, acts as a cipher onto which the viewer can project whatever he or she pleases. As Chelsea herself notes during a chat with a journalist preparing a story about her work, “Sometimes clients think they want the real you, but at the end of the day, they don’t. They want what they want you to be. They want you to be something else. They don’t want you to be yourself.” Soderbergh is well aware of the baggage that Grey brings to the role, and he repurposes it as a silent comment on pre-packaged artifice of both pornography and Chelsea’s professional life. (Not so incidentally, the seminal porn film Boogie Nights also zeroes in on this same idea, offering up an array of characters playacting lives they merely tolerate until they get to pursue their real dreams. In both films, money is not a factor, but the factor.)
The basic thematic work of the film, its unsettling conflation of emotion with status and automation, has turned out to be eerily prescient, just a small hop-and-a-skip away from the mounting standardization of romance today. Those who wring their hands over the imminent Tinderpocalypse come off looking like fogies, and to an extent, that’s true. Twenty-somethings have noncommittally gone to town on one another since time immemorial, after all. But it’s true that romance has been streamlined, its rate of efficiency maximized. Literal capital enables Chelsea’s high-class Johns to gain access to her sexuality and attention, and social capital (status, looks) allows insta-dating users to tap into companionship or a casual hookup at the push of a button. Sometimes it’s dispassionate, sometimes it isn’t, but it’s always there precisely when you want it. The gratification gets closer and closer to instantaneousness with every new technological advance, and Chelsea represents that process’ natural endpoint. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind dared to imagine a service wherein a nominal fee can allow a client to erase unwanted emotions. Conversely, Christine offers to create them, and it’s a far more hazardous game.
Christine lives her life along strictly regimented lines, compartmentalizing her work, personal relationships, and inner life so that none might contaminate the other. In other words, she’s a consummate professional, a businesswoman through and through who doesn’t pretend to be more than the brand she is. She’s monetized the final frontier of commerce, the terrain of the human heart, and though this mercenary success ultimately brings her pain when it drives her boyfriend away, it puts her ahead in the game. Everybody’s chasing the almighty dollar, and Chelsea has found the most direct route.