Thursday, June 11, 2009
The Girlfriend Experience: The Enigma of Chelsea
The Girlfriend Experience, Stephen Soderbergh’s artsy, 78-minute experiment in minimalism, starts with brief establishing shots of some of the locations in which non-chronological vignettes later piece together a brief look into the world of Chelsea, also called Christine, a high-class female escort played by Sasha Grey. These non-linearly interspersed bits and pieces present an impression of Chelsea’s lifestyle which entails many meetings with many people: her clients, her web site manager, a former client turned friend, a current client with whom she feels an emotional connection, her financial advisor, her confidante, her boyfriend, a sleazy sex critic. These meetings blur in our memory as they must blur in Chelsea’s memory. In the end, we get no clear picture of who Chelsea is, no clear indication of what might happen in her future. Her routine continues, and she remains an enigma.
But the enigma of Chelsea is what fascinates me about this film. What do we know about her? She’s twenty-on. She wanted to “get away” from her family. She wants to be regarded as a sophisticated escort, and she feels threatened by the competition. Chelsea engages in a risky business that is realistically only a short-term career, so she plans for the future. She is shrewd about her investments and she consults “books” that calculate her compatibility with other people. On her laptop, she records descriptions of her “dates,” but these toneless passages catalogue what she had for dinner and what she wore as blandly as she catalogues details of the sex she performed. They reveal nothing about her character.
She’s attractive, not radiantly beautiful, but she provides a service that most men want: she listens, she sympathizes, she soothes. But in the same way her clients never know if they’re dealing with the real Chelsea, and some would rather enjoy the illusion, we as viewers are never sure who the real Chelsea is. Soderbergh only provides suggestions. When the camera catches a guarded expression not directed toward a client, we see Chelsea’s boredom and skepticism. Is she looking for a way out? Also, along with the shots of her acting suave and sophisticated, there are plenty of shots that capture her youthful innocence. Sometimes she looks no older than a high school student. Perhaps she knows this, and for this reason she tries to appear sophisticated. She is tasteful about the fashions she wears. She shows interest in artwork.
Chelsea’s youth is part of the sadness. She is a young woman enmeshed in a risky, sordid business. A sleazy pimp proposes that she join a group of hookers traveling to Dubai to pleasure wealthy Arabs, and Chelsea is smart enough to see it as dangerous proposition. For the most part she is tough and cool, but when she is hurt, we see a young, vulnerable, scared little girl. At times her lifestyle seems glamorous; with certain clients she seems to be enjoying herself. But her appointments with clients with unusual sexual habits leave us feeling sad for Chelsea. We want her to escape her world and find the happiness she seeks with one particular client, but Soderbergh never supplies his film with a pat conclusion. How much does she even want to escape her situation? Perhaps she likes what she does. Ironically, she provides a compassionate service that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. She provides the girlfriend experience.