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"Arty" study on why selling sex for a living might not be much fun
on 3 October 2014
"The Girlfriend Experience," directed by Stephen Soderbergh, is a study of the possible emotional consequences of selling sex for a living, how a successful Manhattan escort might find her business similar to or different from any other skilled profession, and the impact it might have on her personal life when she is not with clients.
This film does not appear to be intended to titillate or arouse, and if I'm wrong and it was meant to do either of those things it fails miserably. The central character, a top-end-of-the-market $2,000 an hour call girl called Chelsea, is played by former adult star Sasha Grey, but Sasha was apparently cast not for her undoubted beauty or because the script calls for any raunchy simulated sex scenes (there is some nudity but nothing stronger than many top-ranked actresses would agree to do in a love scene in a 15-rated film), but because the creators of the film wanted an actress who could understand and project some of the implications of selling your body as a profession.
This is a fairly "arty" film with intellectual pretensions and a plot which jumps back and forth in time. It is set in New York during the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election between Obama and McCain - and I mention that because the political and economic implications of the election are frequently discussed during the film.
The perspectives in the early scenes alternates between those of Chelsea, Sasha Grey's character, and a personal trainer called Chris, portrayed by Chris Santos. Both are shown with clients, having discussions with potential business partners such as web designers about how they can grow their business, and in Chelsea's case, recording an audio diary about what happened in meetings with her clients (presumably with their names changed) for a journalist who is writing an article about the sex industry.
Some early sections of the film seem to be highlighting similarities between certain aspects of Chelsea's business and those of other professions such as Chris's. From the beginning it is apparent that many of Chelsea's clients want someone they can talk to as much as they want sex: but similarly some of Chris's clients want to talk to him about the stock market and the 2008 Presidential Election as much as they want exercise and health advice. One of Chris's wealthy clients even invites him to come on an expenses-paid foreign holiday with his friends - an apparently innocent invitation which turns out to have laid an emotional landmine with life-changing consequences for both the main characters in the story.
As the film continues it explains the link between Chelsea and Chris and further explores some of the emotional pressures and hazards which her profession might impose - for exammple she gets some advice for free about how to invest her savings which would normally cost a fortune, but many of her clients seem to need a shrink or a social worker more than they need a sex partner. In particular the film brings out how difficult it might be to have a normal life when you are not with a client.
This is a well-produced and clever film, and possibly a useful antidote to anyone who might be under the impression that high-end prostitutes or indeed the wealthy men who buy their services are likely to have a great life - most of the characters, including those who are professionally very successful, come over as sad pathetic losers - but I did not find it to be a tremendously entertaining film. Indeed, in places it is quite depressing.
One unusual feature concerns the names of the characters in the film. More than three quarters of those characters who are given a name, in the script or in the cast listing at the end, share part of that name with the stage name or real name of the actor or actress who portrayed him or her. Hence Chris is played by Chris Santos, a website owner who calls himself "The Erotic Connoisseur" but is addressed onscreen as "Glenn" is played by Glenn Kenny, a character called Zizzo is played by Peter Zizzo, etc.
If you know and like Stephen Soderberg's films you will very likely have a good idea what to expect from this one and probably won't be disappointed. But if you are looking for an erotic thrill, or anything light-hearted and funny, leave this film alone.