Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience is not merely a realistic portrait of a high-price escort in Manhattan, or a facile critique of capitalism captured during the height of economic panic from last fall. The first notes of the musical score, along with an indiscernible tracking shot along what seems like a steel wall, designate a sense of utter dread. The landscape that these chic and successful wafer thin characters trudge within is pretty and neat, but with its lack of dimension and undeveloped psychologies (the proper sense of artifice at the neglect of anything symbolic and transformative), it's also nightmarish. This is a gorgeous landscape painted in colored electricity, vainly sculpted flesh, and automaton personalities.
Chelsea/Christine (Sasha Grey) is a $2,000-an-hour call-girl, an individual conglomerate who, though obviously already very successful , is aiming to grow her business and improve her clientele. The audience first sees her in the midst of an after-movie drink with a man (we have no reason to assume that he's a client), with a steady conversation of the movie – Man on Wire – in place. The questions and answers are generic and flat, the décor of the restaurant much more interesting than the two individuals. Things move to a hotel room, where the man is complaining about loaning money to a friend of his. We then cut to the couple making out on a couch. The "girlfriend experience" of the title is what Chelsea sells; not just sex, but an entire simulation of a stable relationship with an attractive and attentive person. Her monotone voice-over documents what clothes she has worn, what was talked about, where they ate, etc. There is nothing there to suggest a sense of excitement, anxiety, pressure, or genuine humor. She lives with her boyfriend Chris, a personal trainer who knows all about her work and seems fine with it, to the extent that he convinces himself – just as Chelsea has convinced herself – that there are boundaries and the individual can compartmentalize what is personal and what is business. What the movie may be asking regards how this relationship between "real life" and "work" can be squared when the "Real Person" is so one-dimensional and undeveloped that there may be nothing to compartmentalize, and there is no wall between the Self and the Simulation.
On Wall Street, the economy is the stressful issue that irritates Chelsea’s clients. These are iron men of Big Business with huge offices and living spaces in New York, now threatened with losing their warped standard of living. The otherworldly personal empires they've constructed are going to be unsustainable if things keep on going as badly as they've gone since September. "Invest in gold," Chelsea's told by one of her clients. "Stick with cash," she's told by another. There's a sense floating through these high rise buildings of a gilded age moving on and dying, which is foreboding enough – a sense helped by the sense of human apathy in the film – to be an apocalyptic whimper.
Chelsea's business is on the cusp on growing, and she plans to get her web page redesigned. But boyfriend Chris finds himself in even more of a tight spot. Looking at the apartment that the couple share, there is little doubt that Chelsea is probably paying for most of it; seeking to empathize with this character, one cannot help but feel that he tolerates Chelsea's job (and eccentricities, such as an astrology-like belief in something called Personalogy, based on birthdays) because he's so damned lucky to be with a girl like this. She sells the "experience" to her clients, but he gets the "real" thing, except that, really, he doesn't because there probably is no one there to begin with. He is working on trying to become more successful, by marketing clothes and looking at other gyms to work with. The manager at one of these gyms relays the long-term business plan: "We're not trying to rule the world, but there's, you know, expansion," when truthfully in this economy the endgame is always an impersonal and cancerous drive for endless growth, a trait extending beyond businesses and into human beings. Chris admits that he's been looking at other gyms to his boss, who accuses him of being disloyal and not being a team player. "It's not a good time to be asking for more money," his boss tells him, a troubling thing to say to a man who is threatened by professional stagnation (and a girlfriend who is invested in growth).
There are interesting sexual politics at play in The Girlfriend Experience that capture the troubling sense of an authentic and permanent intimacy (as opposed to simulated). Simulated, we learn, is far easier and much more reliable, if you can afford it. A less interesting and more clichéd film would have made Chelsea a victim being played by powerful men in a patriarchal world. But the men in this film are the needy, whiney, and emotional ones. Some of them don't even need to have intercourse; they just want to talk to Chelsea for hours, paying for her time as they say things like, "It's so nice to see you again," and she reflexively – and mechanically – responds, "It's nice to see you too." Chelsea is steel, impenetrable, machine-like, and this is why Sasha Grey's amateur acting works so well. In this world, Soderbergh is interested in the lack of interesting people with depth, which is something that good actors, honestly, have a hard time doing. Chelsea has a brief encounter with one of her escort rivals, who bears a loud and bouncy personality that draws attention to herself, the very opposite of what Chelsea is selling. But cold as Chelsea is, she remains human and is therefore vulnerable. She finds herself having feelings for one of her cautious clients, a married screenwriter with two children. Her receptivity to him is opened by studying his birth date. She tells Chris that she is going to spend an entire weekend with this man, which angers him (one of his reasons being that he put off a weekend for himself in Vegas because he knew that Chelsea wouldn't approve – whatever that means). "Who said anything about leaving you?" she says, though it's more than apparent that she is preparing to launch. "I have to do this," she dully insists. Of course, she doesn't, but the conglomerate within her, seeing how the professional and private self are one in the same, demands limitless growth at the expense of other relationships. Chris' continuing rationales for anger results in Chelsea’s ironic counter accusation, "You're being selfish." This relationship is dictated by her, and The Girlfriend Experience may strangely be interpreted as an extremely misogynistic experiment, even though its men are fragile and pathetic.
But it's the married screenwriter who has the moment of conscience, giving the film a last minute rewrite. He admits that he began crying when talking to his children, and so could not go through meeting Chelsea for the weekend. She finds herself alone and seems to be unraveling. The truth of business, much like relationships, is that "there's always someone else," whether it's another escort (who Chelsea sees with the man she was with during the film's first moments, sparking a muted jealousy), or the actual wife and kids from whom she is offering temporary escape. The awful sensation in The Girlfriend Experience has to do with how every gorgeous moment is simulated, whether private or professional, as demanded by the economics of success. The world that these characters inhabit is one whose look and structure I envy, able to pulse with a recurring beat of a constant present, an eternal permanence without aging and decay (what will Chelsea be doing in ten years? Will she be even more vapid than she is now?)
One of the main issues of the economic collapse is related to how many people were living as if there was no regret or consequences. In the digital matrix of independently existing moments and isolated human beings, moments exist independent of each other, there can be no empathy, and so no morality. There is only now, with a need for more when too much is never enough. While underneath, even so diminished to a phantasmal guise, remains a longing for naked closeness, so weirdly expressed in the film's final moments.