The late 2000s seemed to be a tough time for just about everyone in America. The financial crisis in 2007 and 2008 meant that nobody was really settled – money was harder to come by in general, and the problem invoked a similar feeling to what the American people must have started to experience during the Great Depression (without the paranoia that many of them must have had that this would end up as a more similar circumstance). There was a general tension in the air, a palpable fear connected to every single person (maybe especially the rich, though they would have had more chance of protecting themselves from it by using their money, so who really can say with clarity?).
It probably seems like, to anyone who hasn’t seen this film, I’m rambling about something completely random, but no. It quickly becomes clear that Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film, The Girlfriend Experience, is one that focused heavily on this frightening moment in recent US history, looking at the effects that it had on the people and, more importantly, their relationships. I hadn’t expected this – in fact, I thought it was a comedy film about relationship troubles going in… you can imagine my surprise – and soon enough, I was completely engrossed. Usually, I’d say I go to Soderbergh’s work for the form involved, I find him to be one of the most technically exhilarating directors currently working, with his efficient shooting style, his swiss army knife abilities and, more recently, his starting to use a phone to create mainstream, big budget cinema. He’s a director that excites me very much, but here I was shocked by just how quickly the political points he had to make, as well as the points about how a civilisation can be affected at large by the failings of the government. The characters mostly speak of their focus on money and safety. The film follows Chelsea, a popular escort who offers her clients the titular “Girlfriend experience”, who has a boyfriend (Chris) who works at a gym. We never really see them interact too much, as the film is much more interested in following Chelsea’s interactions with her clientele.
It is interesting to see how Soderbergh shows how these rich businessmen have been ruined by the economic crisis. It is as if they are ruins of buildings, empty shells, now lacking purpose as they are unable to provide to anywhere close to the same level as they were before. They often focus on this in their discussions, unable to focus on anything else including the ‘girlfriend experience’ that they have paid a staggering two thousand dollars for. But this isn’t what really piqued my interest in the film: Chelsea did. Played by (ex?) porn star Sasha Grey, there is of course an investigation into transactional relationships, especially their new context coming from how they should be looking after their money more than ever but still give in to the most basic of temptations (often despite the fact that they have wives, if not entire families, waiting for them at home.) Soderbergh consistently cuts to a conversation between a group of businessmen, seemingly taking part on a plane, and at one point they discuss the feelings involved in transactional relationships. Only one of them says that they would feel emotionally uninvolved because of the NEED to pay the other person to be there, and it becomes abundantly clear that, whether its down to Chelsea’s ability of the ignorance of these businessmen, they have become completely blind to the fact that she is only there to get paid.
Grey’s performance is one that comes from her own past experiences, and it shows in her sadness here. As the film goes on, she realises her lack of worth more and more, or at least, she picks up on the way that people only want her for sex in the same way that she only wants them for their money. Narration is used just once, as Chelsea’s lowest point, and it says ‘With her smoky eyes, dark straight hair and perky little body, Chelsea would appear to have the potential to satisfy in the goth or the girl-next-door mode (…) With her flat affect, lack of culture and utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest f*cking Gump.” It’s said in a humorous way, but what is being said truly aches.
I never really would have guessed that a Soderbergh film could affect me in such a way, using his typically very fast and efficient techniques in the form but then taking it a step further than he usually does to make compelling points about something that remains relevant now, never mind the relevancy it would have had releasing just a year after the economic crisis closed. The casting is a stroke of genius if ever I have seen one, and the acting as a mid point between the styles of 2000s and 2010s Soderbergh is also fascinating. Highly recommended if you can find it, whether you typically like Soderbergh or not. This is one of his finest films, and one of his most important.