'The Girlfriend Experience:' Is it Possible There's a Decent Movie About Sex Workers?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
I'll admit I was skeptical. Even biased. When I heard about "The Girlfriend Experience," a movie about a high-end prostitute who provides companionship as well as sex -- and what happens when she gets emotionally entangled with a client -- I expected one of two things.
I expected a) a morality play about the consequences of turning love and sex into a commodity, with either a sadder- but- wiser ending in which the guy just can't live with his girlfriend being a prostitute, or -- more likely -- a happy ending in which the prostitute leaves the business to be with the guy ...
or else b) a wacky romantic comedy, the kind that might star Ashton Kutcher and Sarah Jessica Parker, full of amusing secrets and misunderstandings and cross-purposes that all come to a head at the end of the second act and all get resolved in the third. With, of course, a happy ending, in which the prostitute leaves the business to be with the guy.
I was wrong. It's neither. Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" is thoughtful, complex, emotionally nuanced, and thoroughly grown-up. It's definitely a flawed movie (I'll get to that in a moment), but it's an interesting movie and is very much worth seeing. And, although the prostitute is the central character, in an odd way the movie isn't really about prostitution. Instead, the movie uses prostitution as a way of commenting on the economies of human connection, underscoring the link between money and emotion in a variety of non-prostitution relationships ... both professional and personal.
Told in a "several days in the life of" format, the story is about high- end prostitute Chelsea (played by adult film star Sasha Grey, in her mainstream film debut), and an assortment of people in her life: clients, other sex workers, her personal trainer, her financial adviser, her website designer, a journalist interviewing her for a story, the proprietor of a sex worker review website, and her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), another personal trainer. While there's no one simple story being told, the central event in the movie happens when Chelsea forms an emotional connection with a client ... and begins to want a relationship with him that goes beyond the pleasant companionship and sympathetic ear she typically provides as part of the professional "girlfriend experience."
The movie is not pure pro- sex- work propaganda. It doesn't shy away from the psychological complexities and downsides of providing a personal, emotional experience for money. But far from pointing a judgmental finger, it uses Chelsea's work as a "girlfriend experience" prostitute to underline the connection between emotion and money in a whole host of relationships.
The clearest example is Chelsea's boyfriend, Chris. Chris works as a personal trainer with wealthy Wall Street types, and he faces many of the same issues that Chelsea does: having to convince clients that he likes them in order to stay in business, needing to maintain both an emotional presence and an emotional distance, balancing his clients' stated desire to hear the truth and what he suspects is their real desire to be flattered and praised, maintaining a friendly and personable relationship with very rich people who he has little in common with and might even be hostile to, not being clear on where or how to draw the line when clients want to shift the boundaries of the relationship and become friends . .. I could go on an on.
But there are loads of other examples as well. When Chelsea sees a customer with another escort, it immediately triggers both a professional insecurity about losing financial support and a personal insecurity about her own sex appeal ... insecurities that are deeply tangled, even difficult to distinguish from each other, and that echo the insecurity of a wife who's supported by her husband and suspects he's stepping out on her. When Chris tells his boss that he wants a promotion and has been looking for other work, his boss replies, "You've looked at other places? After all the times I've helped you out?" ... and their subsequent conversation about commitment to work is indistinguishable from a conversation about commitment to a romantic relationship. When Chelsea works out with her own personal trainer, the physical connection and ease the women have with one another is almost shockingly intimate. When one of the Wall Street jerks says that "I want to know that someone likes me for me. At least for an hour," it's not immediately clear whether he's talking about his escort or his trainer. When one of Chris's clients asks him to go an a weekend jaunt to Vegas, he has many of the same qualms Chelsea has when one of her clients asks her to do the same thing. And when Chelsea meets with a financial advisor who talks about expanding and marketing her brand, there's an unsettling undercurrent coming from the fact that her brand is herself ... an undercurrent that reminds you more powerfully than anything of what musicians and actors and other artists go through to "sell themselves."