Directors’ Showcase / European premiere

The Girlfriend Experience

  • Steven Soderbergh /
  • USA /
  • 2009 /
  • 77 mins

Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Philip Eytan, Glenn Kenny, Timothy Davis, David Levien, Mark Jacobson / Fiction / English

Sex and the credit crunch, as interpreted by one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers – and one of its most notorious sex stars.

In the context of prostitution, a 'girlfriend experience' signifies an interaction involving not just sex, but dinner, conversation, and other activities replicating a real emotional relationship. Steven Soderbergh's raw, fast, fiercely up-to-theminute film – a second foray into low-budget digital experimentation after the intriguing Bubble (2005) – tracks a few days in the life of a purveyor of such services. The lead role is played by the celebrated adult performer Sasha Grey, who quite possibly stimulates more 'girlfriend' fantasies than the average porn star, at least amid a certain class of consumer. Not only is Grey a graceful, soignée creature whom one could quite readily take home to Mother (provided she didn't talk too much about her day at work); she has also fostered the image of an intellectual. She declares herself a devotee of Antonioni and Von Trier, and upon her entry into the porn industry contemplated using the professional name Anna Karina in tribute to Godard's one-time muse. Do these facts render Grey more interesting than any other porn star? Maybe not, but they do spark undeniable intrigue in terms of the choices she's made. This isn't necessarily sexist prurience, either – similar questions arose when Catherine Breillat cast Rocco Siffredi, an occasional co-star of Grey's, in Anatomy of Hell (EIFF 2004). Whatever Grey's cultural proclivities, Godard's work with Karina is a clear reference point here: like Vivre sa vie (1962), The Girlfriend Experience deploys prostitution as a microcosm of capitalist economy. In truth, the hot tagline for Soderbergh's film – "See it with someone you ****" – is misleading: with the recession as its backdrop, this film concerns itself much more with economics than erotica. The high-end services offered by Grey's character stand for all the hollow luxuries suddenly sliding from the hands of her Wall Street client base, while the abrupt decline in her own business (precipitated by an uncharacteristic bout of emotional vulnerability and a scathing review on an escort comparison website) indicates that nothing is safe once you've sold yourself. It's a bleak message – you'll wait in vain for the romantic redemption promised at the close of Soderbergh's previous study of empty sexual interaction, sex lies and videotape (EIFF 1989). But as the first cinematic study of the new economic landscape, this is urgent, funny and intriguing; while Grey's untouchably remote performance is itself a challenge to the objectification of her and her kind.

2009 Archive

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  • #1 Mike Hall / Friday 26 June, 2009 / 00:32 GMT

    Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the film's main protagonist Chelsea as a spoilt, shallow and emotionally-retarded starlet, this would be disrespectful to the skill with which Soderburgh sets about his complex deconstruction.

    After gratifying a stream of overweight execs, who witter on about the financial downturn, Chelsea falls for the first piece of vaguely-eye-candy who responds to her own emotional seepage. It's as if she's so busy trying to be what she thinks her customers want that she's lost all sense of her own self, and desperately grabs onto someone who reflects who she is back to her. It's hard to feel much compassion when said hunk promptly leaves her high and dry in the middle of designer nowhere, after she has summarily dumped her equally vacuous, preening and self-promoting personal fitness boyfriend. At least they deserve one another - these obnoxious creations are a by-product of a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    And boy, does her beauty come at a cost – in her warped world, it seems that every man will try any ruse to lure her between the sheets. Even the interviewing journalist that pops up sporadically is portrayed in this way, until you realise that actually, he’s just the vehicle for her metaphorical exposure, as she attempts feeble side-steps to avoid his incisive questioning.

    With its' semi-documentary style and chopped up chronology, it's worth the effort it takes to keep up. Chelsea certainly has a stunning body, to the extent that one of her customers orgasms just by looking at her in her underwear. But the irony is that by this stage, any initial attraction the viewer may have for her has been stripped away, as it becomes increasingly obvious that her detached and professional air is simply a mask to hide the nothingness within. Ultimately, Soderbergh leaves you with the impression that she's the real-life equivalent of a plastic doll. An interesting and provocative watch; 8/10.
  • #2 Paul Laird / Saturday 27 June, 2009 / 23:08 GMT

    It's all about Sasha really.

    The move from "adult" films into adult films is not one that many, if any, people have made...certainly not successfully. When one considers the depravities to which Hollywood turns a blind eye that is a situation that is difficult to work out...the answer may well lie in Sasha Greys performance here.

    While she is far from being wooden there is something about her that seems...flat. Perhaps the years of group sex, double-penetration, bukake and the rest have taken their toll on her. She appeared to be little more than a shell here...a remarkable looking shell, a perfectly formed shell but a shell nonetheless.

    It may be a cliche but she was dead behind the eyes.

    Maybe, of course, this was all part of the performance...if it was then she is a finer actress than I am prepared to give her credit for.

    The story is simple and not particularly interesting; escort girl escorts, falls for client, is let down and then carries on escorting. Despite this flimsy premise and Soderberghs increasingly desperate attempts to shoe-horn in his recession message into nearly every scene the film is interesting enough and Greys performance diverting enough to keep you happy.

    Meaningless sexual encounters, at the risk of sounding like some hoary old born again preacher, come at a price...they corrode the soul; at least that's how it looks when you peer into the eyes of a woman who has made a career out of exactly those sorts of encounters. That said, if anyone fancies...I'm joking.

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