The Girlfriend Experience
Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
It’s no surprise that, rather than a most established performer and actress like Scarlett Johannson or Christina Hendricks, director Steven Soderbergh sought out Sasha Grey for the lead role in The Girlfriend Experience. Grey has spent years making millions off building the fantasies of her male (and female) audience with dozens of notable porn movies. As Chelsea, she’s called upon to create the fantasies of many lonely and lovelorn men with everything but a companion. Instead of filling the screen with graphic sex, Soderbergh zeroes in on Grey’s more downbeat aspects like her smoky eyes, pouty lips, and cherubic features.
One of the main reasons Grey has been one of the very few porn stars to be accepted in to the mainstream is because she seems very unlike a porn star. She’s unassuming, and presents more humility than Jenna Jameson or Alexis Texas. The casting of Grey is a stroke of genius, as she spent most of her time during her porn career playing personas. The concept of the porn star is about playing a character for your fans, even if you’re not filming. Chelsea is mostly just a persona through the duration of The Girlfriend Experience.
She’s rarely a genuine woman as she is someone paid large amounts of money to be intellectual, witty, or affectionate. What The Girlfriend Experience is about is the porn star, and how the economy would eventually affect our pursuit of the ultimate fantasy. At the end of the day, men and women think they want the real person in pornographic scenarios. We may think we want the actual Jessie Jane, or Asa Akira, or Sasha Grey. But when they do drop the cloak for us, we might discover we just wanted the fantasy all along.
“If they wanted the real me, they wouldn’t pay me,” Chelsea tells a journalist who is compiling a report about her life as a mistress. Chelsea is rarely pictured without the company of a man in the film. She’s often viewed sleeping beside someone. We only see her really alone in one or two scenes, and she does nothing then but ponder her next move. The only time someone cares about her profession and her pleasure is during her limo rides after her nights spent with clients.
We gain insight into Chelsea’s profession (and perhaps the profession of the porn performer) where it’s all about pleasuring the client. The clients rarely consider pleasuring Chelsea, who is paid to pretend they’re fascinating, witty, and attractive. In the opening, she displays frustration with a client who was very well endowed, acknowledging that she really couldn’t handle him during love making.
The economic times surrounding the inauguration of President Obama leads to turmoil and underlying tensions, not just for Chelsea’s clients, but for Chelsea. They urge her to invest her money, and to consider accepting other forms of pay for her services beyond money. The economy, and potential collapse into a depression in 2008, doesn’t just affect the purchase of the fantasy, but how the clients ultimately interact with Chelsea. Though she’s mainly hired to perform for her clients, she displays resentment toward the fact that a few of them completely dismiss her when she leaves the next morning.
The economy and societal frustrations don’t just disrupt her business, but how they fetishize her. What’s worse is that the demand for Chelsea is dwindling. And she has no idea how to invest her money, and ensure her status as a wealthy companion. Chelsea is fighting the rising tide of age and an unfortunate client base that wants something new, and she’ll do literally anything to maintain her status as the best companion in the city. Grey gives a compelling turn as this beautiful fantasy girl who scrambles to find a way to keep her job as the ultimate companion, once she realizes she didn’t save her money too wisely.
This ultimately ends in a confrontation with a sleazy reviewer for an online message board, expecting a free night with her and sex in exchange for a good review. Also, she falls for a client who inspires her to leave her long-suffering boyfriend. He plays her coach and cheerleader for most of the film, giving Chelsea pep talks about her status as a companion, and Chelsea begins to panic when she realizes she’s losing her clients to a new companion who is younger, leaner, and potentially has more to offer.
Steven Soderbergh is a man who isn’t afraid to take risks and his casting of the gorgeous Sasha Grey as the lovely Chelsea is brilliant. Grey comes from a business where youth has to be maintained and people always want something new and something more. As Chelsea, she’s a goddess running out of time and doing whatever it takes to keep herself in business, much like the industry Ms. Grey built her fame on. As a drama and exploration of the sex industry, The Girlfriend Experience is flawless.
— Felix Vasquez Jr.