In league with a loving, caring God and the notion that children actually enhance a marriage, the idea that men visit prostitutes as a vehicle for escapism is the most enduring myth running. It’s an understandable error, and one almost always botched by writer and filmmaker alike. That is, until Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience; not only the most provocative film of the year so far, but one of the few that actually gets it right, if by “it” we mean the whole of male/female interactions. At its essence a bare-bones exploration of what it means to be a high-end escort, we are treated to very little (if anything) by way of actual sex, a curious turn indeed given the presence of Sasha Grey, a woman who can be currently accessed on YouPorn ingesting all manner of bodily fluids. Mere voyeurs, in fact, are advised to stay away, as this is not an exercise in titillation or orgasmic satisfaction. Nor is it a furiously self-righteous condemnation of “the life,” complete with half-hearted offers of better days ahead or abandoned kiddos that beckon our women back from the abyss. Thankfully, it is neither a cautionary tale, nor a romantic release. Like Soderbergh’s equally masterful Bubble, we are meant only to observe and investigate, extracting results that depend wholly on our willingness to fill in the near-frustrating degree of blanks.
Without having to insist on a larger arc to the story, or deeper meaning to the characters, The Girlfriend Experience would be a worthy endeavor for its matter-of-factness alone. Chelsea (Grey) is not a particularly interesting subject, but that makes her all the more worthy of our time. Flashy, melodramatic prostitutes litter the streets of Hollywood history, and when they’re not finding their knights in shining armor or ending up on the wrong end of a butcher knife, they’re figures of glamour and sophistication, as if most who earn their keep in the prone position can be expected to follow the path of the courtesan. Hookers, high or low, can be attractive, plain, fit, or flabby, but only on the silver screen are they ever likely to exchange more than pleasing, attentive banter. Men want an ear not attached to the screaming banshee holding their privates in a mason jar, not Harold Bloom with a bigger set of tits. Chelsea can meet these decidedly low expectations, and though her chirp rarely rises above the level of a quiet, bored whisper, it’s enough that she’s there making eye contact. Still, as much as she’s not secretly brilliant (more fantasy) or painfully sweet (we root neither for nor against her), she is the opposite of every other call girl we’ve come to expect: her façade, not her daily grind, is the real thing.
And it is here, in the push away from the predictability of the subject, that the film makes its first stab at lasting importance. A man visits a whore not to become someone else for a time, or sprint away from the boredom of who he really is, but rather to become more of himself. It is in that hotel room, or at that fancy restaurant, that he can explore the person within so needlessly compromised by marriage, family, and work. It is often said that men seek professionals because they can indulge in bizarre sexual rituals that they dare not bring up at home. That this is true need not be debated. But the statement is so rarely carried to its obvious conclusion. However odd the fantasy, it reflects a genuine impulse, and man is best defined by his uncalculated, spontaneous reactions to life’s challenges. When we reflect, ponder, and rationalize, we sand away our identity to such an extent that it seems to exist beyond the shore; something untouchable and inauthentic, as if to be tapped when no one is looking. And for those times — nearly every waking second, if we’re of the average sort — when we are supposedly living our “real” lives, we are in fact living that fantasy so often attributed elsewhere. In fact, we knowingly invent, lie, and deceive more often in the interactions we have come to believe are the precious moments of living. They are anything but.
Take Chris (Chris Santos), Chelsea’s boyfriend, though it would be more accurate to label him a crude sketch of what such a person is supposed to entail. While ostensibly a personal trainer with ideas of growing himself into a self-styled entrepreneur, he is in fact more of a prostitute than the woman with whom he allegedly shares a life. Even in the telling — the world of business is but an oversized, legitimized whorehouse — it sounds trite and overused, but his role is nonetheless crucial, as he reminds us that under the cover of employment (again, the stuff of “life”), there isn’t a single moment that reflects the man within. During the course of a day, especially one that involves wooing clients, who among us could distinguish between who we are and what we want to others to believe us to be? And yet, no one has ever claimed that spending a day in a highly charged board room or amidst the din of a frenetic collection of cubicles is akin to flesh peddling. Even granting that a man fakes his way through the work day in order to unwind at home assumes that upon arrival, he is at last removing the masks that confine him. It is said that full, uncompromising honesty at every moment of the day would make life impossible, but how else are we to interpret what transpires between Chelsea and her assorted clients?
Though we only observe snippets, in every case we witness, the men are relieving themselves of their insecurities, stresses, and concerns. Chelsea is there to absorb gripes, complaints, and every mode of panic the men see fit to expunge. They talk of sadness, loneliness, despair, and regret, which proves conclusively that at no other point of the day are these matters considered. They are stuffed, denied, and buried deep within, leading to a wave of predictable self-loathing. A few of the johns do nothing but talk, remaining fully clothed throughout. Hell, an erection is never even considered. One man even admits that he should be seeing a therapist, but at least with Chelsea, there’s more at the conclusion than just a heart-stopping invoice. Momentary pleasure is better than nothing at all. As with rape, prostitution is less about actual sex than a feeling of control. When I explode, rant, and unburden myself of the weight of the world, I remain unchallenged in my sense of martyrdom. My perception is not just the only one that matters, it’s the only one that exists at all.
If there is an alternative explanation for The Girlfriend Experience, it surely remains in the thicket of ceaseless conversation that envelops the picture. From television screens to cocktail chatter, every word under discussion relates to money (and its impending loss). Chelsea is after it, of course, and trying to figure out investment opportunities for the time when a sagging ass won’t command top prices, but it’s also there on the streets, in private jets, and on the lips of half-naked high rollers. It’s arguably the real obsession of our culture, and as obvious as that sounds, consider the depressing allegation that at bottom, there isn’t a single moment left absent the cash nexus. Sure, it’s precious and unbearably smug to attack the materialism that saturates the modern world, especially in light of the fact that few on the side of condemnation seem to be willing to take vows of poverty. What’s more, money and the comforts it affords are worth whatever it takes to acquire them, are they not? Because it is unalterably true that the only people who knock money are those who have it and are in no danger of losing it, no further explanation is necessary. What remains largely unexplored, however, is the idea that it’s no longer possible to carve an identity without it. Reaching that conclusion, after all, offers no comfort whatsoever, and risks a full-tilt immersion in suicidal despair.
What other conclusion have we, though, when Chelsea is unable to avoid financial pleas, even with her legs pinned behind her ears? Even the lonely jeweler near the film’s conclusion has little to offer but advice about the gold market, as if the entirety of life could be reduced to what it’s worth per ounce. But isn’t it? Chelsea is most bothered — that is, where her emotions seem to move beyond the indifferent — by the client who gives her a critical review on a website for area escorts. The voiceover is hilariously obnoxious (we remember the john had insisted that he could “take her places” and set her up as a concubine to the elite of Dubai), but it lays Chelsea bare as a woman corrupted by the sin of dullness. Her biggest lie, at least to herself, was that she was only doing this for the money. In fact, she hasn’t the talent for anything else. Hell, the jury’s still out about her abilities in her current vocation. As someone tells her, she wouldn’t receive a single call if she weren’t attractive and alluring, so does that not transfer to the life she believes she is living on the outside? She hasn’t a clue what to do besides put a dick in her mouth, as she’s never had to consider the alternative. Now even that is under a cloud of doubt.
Regardless of what one takes from the film (and it might indeed be very little, which is acceptable), it is clear that Soderbergh has become the go-to director for stark, unaffected realism. At bottom, he has a gift for authenticity and restraint that allow for total engagement from the first frame to the last. We’re so involved, in fact, that we can’t be bothered to know whether we care about these characters, or even what is going on; it’s simply enough to wonder if we’re going anywhere at all. If the surroundings are a bit chilly for some, or the approach much too detached, consider how rare it is to come across anything in this life that doesn’t come with an instruction manual teeming with sanctions for even slight deviations. The Girlfriend Experience challenges our very ideas of entertainment and narrative structure, yes, but just as profoundly blasts away our oversimplified perspectives on the very nature of communication itself. With everything reduced to an abbreviated “experience”, nothing is actually lived or lived in, simply tried on for a bit, discarded, and fancifully forgotten until the next expected distraction. We are less a whole person, then, than momentary blips on an incomprehensible radar screen. Where what we escape to, is precisely where we came from.