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 had spent years making millions off building the fantasies of her male (and female) audience with dozens of notable porn movies, as well as building a humongous line of sex toys that promote fantasy fulfillment for an audience that want every piece of her. Much like Grey, “The Girlfriend Experience” is about the fantasy and the reality that we may not realize isn’t always enticing.
Grey as Chelsea, is a professional and highly demanded escort who is called upon to create the fantasies of many lonely and lovelorn men with everything in life but a companion. Many of the men that desire her, live in a world where they can afford everything but their dream girl. And Grey is perfection as Dream Girl Chelsea. When we meet Chelsea in the beginning, she’s draped in the shadows of a limousine back seat, and dons large sunglasses that keeps her eyes concealed most of the time. Even when Soderbergh cuts to a close up of Chelsea, she’s still out of our reach, enigmatic, and unattainable. The eyes can tell all, and in her business Chelsea sticks to concealing what mostly gives her away.
Director Soderbergh zeroes in on Grey’s more downbeat aspects like her smoky eyes, pouty lips, and cherubic features that make her the most unsuspecting sexual companion. 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 very unassuming, and presents more humility than Jenna Jameson or Alexis Texas. She’s always seemed a lot more approachable, as is witnessed by her work with web channels like ETC. Show, et al. The casting of Grey is a stroke of genius, as she’s spent most of her time during her porn career playing personas, and to this day has kept the moniker Sasha Grey.
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 a character very few people in her life know or understand. She’s rarely a genuine woman, as she is someone paid large amounts of money to be intellectual, witty, or affectionate.
Soderbergh is very good about filming Grey from a distance and from low angles that allow her to remain a mostly anonymous protagonist. We visit her, and we get to know her, but never truly garner an insight in to her more complex shades of her personality. Instead of filling the screen with graphic sex, most of the sex is described while Chelsea spends time describing the sex as mostly unpleasant or boring.
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, and attractive. In the opening moments, she displays frustration with a client who was very well endowed, acknowledging that she really couldn’t handle him during love making. And he doesn’t seem to have cared if she enjoyed the experience all too much.
What “The Girlfriend Experience” is about is the porn star, and how the failing economy circa 2009 would eventually affect our pursuit of the ultimate fantasy. 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 as she continues working as fast and as much as she can. And sadly, 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 and supportive 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 in the realm of sex and personality.
Steven Soderbergh is a man who isn’t afraid to take risks with his casting and general filmmaking methodology. His casting of the gorgeous Sasha Grey as Chelsea is brilliant. Grey was in a business where youth had to be maintained and where people always wanted something new, something more, and something so much bolder. 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 a stark character study and great statement about the recession.
* Previously published on Sound on Sight November 12th, 2013, and has been edited and altered.