The Girlfriend Experience

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

4 August

Barack Obama born, 1961

On this day in 1961, Barack Hussein Obama II was born, in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

His parents were Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr, the former an anthropologist from Wichita, Texas, the latter a student from Kenya who would go on to graduate from Harvard before returning to Kenya where he would become a government economist.

Barack Jr’s parents separated when he was only days old and his mother moved, first to Seattle, then back to Hawaii, where she met her second husband, Leo Soetoro, and married again in 1965.

Her husband moved back to Indonesia in 1966 and Barack’s mother moved her family to join him there in 1967, having completed her anthropology degree. The family lived in Jakarta until, in 1971, Barack moved back to Hawaii on his own, aged ten, to live with his grandparents.

In 1979, he moved to Los Angeles to go to college and in 1981 made his first political speech, urging his college to cut its investment ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

The first proper credit crunch movie out of Hollywood is also one of the first to mention Barack Obama. Just casually, early on, as a bunch of guys are discussing the President’s bail-out package.

It’s not the point of the film, which is about other types of packages – the tumescent one that a male client wants to insert into the woman he’s bought by the hour, and the emotional one the female offers in return.

Director Steven Soderbergh’s casting coup is to get Sasha Grey, a real porn star, to play the high end hooker in well tailored suits and designer shades who offers “the girlfriend experience” to men who have the $2,000 a night to pay for it. This involves her going around with them, to fancy restaurants, to art galleries, all the time behaving as if she is in fact their loving girlfriend. Sex might be involved, but it’s not necessarily.

Watching Chelsea (her working name) on the job is one of the fascinations of the film. She gives nothing of herself away, always asks open questions, is constantly steering the conversation away from herself. You might get “the girlfriend experience” but that doesn’t mean you get real intimacy, only a simulacrum.

What Chelsea actually offers is a sales experience and the men on the whole seem to go for it, because they want to be seen out on the town with a great looking high status woman.

I’m not convinced that Soderbergh and writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman have thought too far past this high concept, but they’ve gone far enough to include other interesting scenes in which everything has a price but no real worth. At one point the camera casually includes a homeless man drumming on the street. He is clearly a real talent. No one pays him the slightest bit of attention, because he’s a bum. Later, at an art gallery, where Chelsea and one of her clients are trying to buy art, the dealer has an offhand almost dismissive attitude to what he’s selling. When forced to offer an artistic evaluation of the painting they’re standing in front of, he says “it kind of looks like a clown”.

As you can imagine, in 2009, with world economies teetering, pointing out that consumerism is so rampant that it extends into personal relationships was like trying to sell a surfing holiday after a tsunami. Was Soderbergh being brave, or was he just too rich to notice what was going on outside his golden bubble?

Setting so much of the film in hotel lobbies and bland corporate spaces, opting for an almost affectless, bored performance from Grey, Soderbergh has been accused of making a boring film, a flat, uninvolved one. This is to miss the subtlety of his camera, which repeatedly focuses not on where we expect it to, but somewhere else – while characters are talking the camera is not on their faces but on the bar behind, where transactions are going on. He follows the money. And you can’t accuse the film of not being good looking, Soderbergh matching the cool elegance of Grey with seductive cinematography worthy of his biggest budget efforts, such as the Oceans movies.

And in the end, what does he say? Not much. That humans shouldn’t live like this. There’s more to life than money. What men really want is comfort and love. And so do women. If there is such a thing as a stealth tragedy, The Girlfriend Experience is it.

Why Watch?

  • Sasha Grey’s fascinating performance
  • Soderbergh’s cool camera
  • Hollywood’s first credit crunch movie
  • Surprisingly lacking in sex

The Girlfriend Experience – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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