It’s not often that an actress can boast of having her name above the title on her very first mainstream film, but then Sasha Grey is not just any actress. At age 18, she received the prizes for “Best Three Way Sex Scene” and “Best Group Scene” at the Adult Video News Awards; at 19, she was a Penthouse Pet of the Month and also became the youngest starlet ever to win the AVN award for “Female Performer of the Year.” Now 21, she is already at work on an autobiographical documentary about her brief but triumphal march through the skin trade.
All of which is to say that director Steven Soderbergh’s decision to cast Grey as a high-end Manhattan escort in his micro-indie The Girlfriend Experience is a stunt, a way of attaching complicated resonances (and, yes, some prurient buzz) to the film. And on those terms, I suppose, the stunt succeeds. Watching Grey, at least at first, it’s hard not to wonder how her experience at the sexual extremes informs her performance in a role that is, ironically, quite a bit tamer than her day job.
In cinematic terms, though, the stunt fails dismally. Once the novelty of the casting wears off, the performance offers nothing to hold onto, no meaningful insight into either the character, Christine (clients know her as “Chelsea”), or Grey herself. There are layers upon layers here--a porn star taking on a serious acting role in which she plays a woman whose job is to make herself an object of male fantasy--but it’s unclear whether Grey is aware of any of them. Christine and Chelsea (and, one can’t help but imagine, Grey) are indistinguishable: blank, dull, prone to choosing her words carefully and choosing the most banal ones imaginable. Indeed, in what is either a commendably honest internal critique or, more likely, an attempt to head off inevitable complaints about the performance, character after character in the film comments on how remote Christine is. “See,” the film practically assures us, “she’s playing someone who’s completely affectless.” Either way, we’re left with little more than the pretty surfaces, which those inclined could presumably see at greater expanse in Grey’s other work.
It would have been possible, I suppose, for Soderbergh to work his way around the collapsed star at the center of his film if the characters in her orbit brought something to the encounters, if she were a mirror held up to their desires and disappointments. But the rest of the (nonprofessional) cast spends most of their time, like us, marveling at how closed off she is. New York magazine writer Mark Jacobson plays, appropriately enough, a reporter trying to get inside Christine’s head; film blogger-critic Glenn Kenny plays a porn blogger-critic trying to get inside her pants. Both wind up disappointed.
So, too, does Christine’s rather improbable live-in boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), whose parallel resonances do not end with his name. Chris, you see, is a personal trainer and, as such, someone who is also always hustling for rich clients to whom he may sell his body and the illusion of friendship. Or so, at least, Soderbergh wants us to believe. Perhaps I am naive about the impositions undergone by the average trainer, but equating fitness coaching to hooking seems to me a rather distant stretch, and never more so than when Soderbergh heavy-handedly suggests that Chris spending a weekend in Vegas with a few (straight, male) clients would be the functional equivalent of Christine going on a romantic mini-vacation with a new client to whom she finds herself deeply attracted.
Soderbergh adds a veneer of sophistication to the film by chopping it into thin slices and shuffling the chronology. (We get several glimpses of Christine’s lunch interview with the reporter, for instance, before we actually learn that he is a reporter.) It’s a trick Soderbergh has used to good effect in the past--in The Limey, for instance, or the terrific Out of Sight--but here it’s just that, a trick, a way of injecting the illusion of surprise into what would otherwise be a drably predictable fable.
In the end, it’s a fable not about sex, but about money. Though Christine’s monotonous, diary-like narration occasionally delineates the naughty bits (“And then he asked me to masturbate, and I did. And then he masturbated watching me”), more often she’s cataloguing upscale accoutrements and activities with the precision of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho: La Perla lingerie and 25 Year Macallan scotch, lunch at Nobu and dinner at Blue Hill, where the customer base evidently encompasses presidents and prostitutes alike. Her clients talk vaguely about bailouts and investments and politics--the movie is set in the early days of the crash, just before the 2008 election--with the acute self-pity of the somewhat-reduced super rich. On the rare occasions when the conversation shifts to alternative topics, it is seldom enhanced. (“So, did you like the movie?” a client asks Grey after they watch Man on Wire. “I think the movie was … good,” she replies carefully.)
This is not Soderbergh’s first exercise in such minimalist filmmaking--working with nonprofessional actors, shooting and editing the footage himself--but his previous attempt, 2005’s Bubble, went in precisely the opposite direction, telling a story about genuinely downtrodden workers at a doll factory in rural Ohio. That film was odd and ungainly, yet somehow also penetrating. The locals who starred in it couldn’t act, exactly, but they were unguarded and vulnerable in unexpected ways. (It didn’t hurt, either, that the film had a plot, and a murder.) In The Girlfriend Experience, by contrast, the cast is neither actorly nor innocent. Magazine writer Jacobson, film critic Kenny, movie producer Elon Dershowitz (who plays a john), and, of course, the inconceivably jaded Sasha Grey--in their different ways, these are all people accustomed to the public gaze.
Moreover, with the exception of Grey, they--and the characters they play--are the kind of people that anyone watching a Soderbergh indie are likely to know in quantity already. Where Bubble exposed esoteric filmgoers to lives in most cases unlike their own, The Girlfriend Experience surrounds them with familiar urban, information-age types--only wealthier, and considerably more irritating. The central insight of the film (hardly a new one) is that more than the sex, men hire escorts in order to have someone who has no choice but to listen when they talk about themselves. Indeed, there’s a point in the movie when Christine is asked, “Do you ever get bored just talking to rich people?” I don’t recall her answer, but Lord knows I got bored enough for both of us.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.