Steven Soderbergh’s film about a high-class New York City escort is certainly no “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”—or at least it bears no resemblance to the 1961 Blake Edwards adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella, which bowdlerized and romanticized the original beyond recognition. But Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is no Holly Golightly anyway. As penned by Capote and played by Audrey Hepburn, Holly was outrageous, unpredictable and flighty. Chelsea, by contrast, is all business, controlled and calculating even in her relationship with Chris (Chris Santos), the nice-guy personal trainer with whom she’s been living for two years but whom she abruptly dumps when she quickly hits it off with a new client (Peter Zizzo), a Hollywood screenwriter who seems ready to leave his family for her.
Indeed, “The Girlfriend Experience” isn’t really about emotional relationships at all; it’s about commerce, or more broadly capitalism, which may have an emotional element (after all, people do lust after profit), but is generally a cold, methodical affair. Certainly that chilliness is apparent not only in Chelsea’s treatment of Chris (and in his haggling with his boss for a share of the gym’s profits, as well as his attempt to start up a line of sports clothing), but in her journal entries on her “dates.” In them, her major interest is in detailing the outfits she wore, label by label (a hint of Bret Easton Ellis here), and on the financial advice she gleaned from conversations with her clients (she has as much entrepreneurial spirit as Chris, but her ultimate goal is to own a boutique).
The economic focus of the piece is accentuated by the historical point in which it’s set: the fall of 2008, when the US economy was in freefall and the Obama-McCain campaign was ongoing. Complaints about the effects of recession and its impact on individual fortunes are a constant motif here. The fact that the editing (by Soderbergh himself under the pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard, just as he shot the picture under the nom de cinema Peter Andrews—and quite elegantly) fractures things chronologically, so that the timeframe is repeatedly ruptured although overall the film closes (though rather abruptly) at a logical end-point, sometimes obscures precisely when the action’s occurring (at one moment, for example, a smug executive with a loathsome sense of entitlement speaks contemptuously of Obama’s stimulus package in terms that make it sound post-election). But the shuffling doesn’t undermine the picture’s essential theme of the dehumanizing effect of mercantile enterprise, at all levels.
What’s missing in “The Girlfriend Experience,” as in “Che,” is any effort to explain, or at least address, the issue of personal motivation beside the economic one, apart from a few scenes in which Chelsea’s interviewed by a reporter Mark Jacobson) but reveals very little. Perhaps that’s merely a sign of the makers’ acceptance of the Marxist idea that everything is at basis economic, and that the other aspects of life are the merest window-dressing. But one nevertheless feels the lack of any attempt at psychological dissection, a fact reflected in performances that are generally prosaic, or if you prefer, realistically flat. Even when Grey and Santos get worked up, it’s never at a very high level. So one can admire their physical attractiveness, but never get much beyond it—which is perhaps the idea.
There is one performance that goes beyond that surface sheen—Glenn Kenny’s portrait of a sleazy Internet critic calling himself The Erotic Connoisseur, who invites Chelsea to give him a personal demonstration of her favors in return for a favorable review and offers to include her on a jaunt he’s planning to Dubai (no white slave connotations, he assures). The juxtaposition of this scumbag’s proposition with some street musicians singing “Everyone’s A Critic” makes it clear that Soderbergh’s aiming a barb at reviewers generally—people like me who’ve sometimes found his movies wanting (though, let me emphasize, I’m sure he’s totally unaware of my existence). But if “Che” was a meandering misfire and “Solaris” a dreary miscalculation, and even his palate-cleansing indie efforts occasionally messes (like “Full Frontal”), in this HD video minimalist exercise, as in the earlier “Bubble,” he uses his modest resources to maximum effect. “The Girlfriend Experience” may not take one to the emotional depths, but in its cool, detached way it’s a sharply observed commentary on the parched, incomplete relationships that result from a merely capitalist mentality.