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The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh’s twentieth film (out this week), is premiering exactly two decades after his debut Sex, Lies and Videotape. Though they are very different films—in content and in style—they do share certain themes. In an interview during the Tribeca Film Festival, where The Girlfriend Experience had its premiere, Soderbergh explained, “I view [the new film] superficially as a companion piece. They’re both about delusion.”
With The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh offers a nuanced portrait of the sex industry, showing the seediness, the mundane aspects, and the real emotional connections that are all part of that world. The film centers on the story of Chelsea (adult film star Sasha Grey), a Manhattan call girl with a unique specialty: she will approximate a relationship for her clients. This means, at the cost of $2000/hour, she will show up in a little black dress, eat at of-the-moment restaurants like Blue Hill, listen attentively to rants about the stock market, have sex, and read the Times over a fruit plate in the morning.
Soderbergh’s decision to cast Grey in the lead is easily dismissible as a stunt, but she proves herself to be a capable actress. Chelsea has, as one disgruntled client puts it in the film, a flat affect (which she claims was on purpose—Soderbergh wanted her to bring her “laidback personality” to the role), and Grey shows enough hints of an inner life that the audience is kept mesmerized, wondering how much of the real Chelsea—and Grey—they will be allowed to experience. Soderbergh explained, “I’m operating under the notion that not all fantasies are purely sexual. You can see Sasha in any sexual position. What you’re not getting is a sense of how it is to be emotionally involved with her.”
Grey has hinged her career on being elusive, atypical, and totally in control. She’s prone to saying things like, “I want to be a voice for young, sexual women,” and “I’m the woman, and I’m having sex on camera, so I make the rules.” Her silicone-free body and penchant for goth makeup challenge the overriding aesthetics of porn. And she’s quick to dismiss any suggestion that women in the sex industry are all abused or victims. She says that the main difference between working in a feature film and an adult film is that in a feature everyone shows up to the set on time. Her preternatural self-awareness isn’t something we expect of most sex workers, or 21-year-olds.
A perfect autodidact, Grey tries very hard to maintain her persona of total empowerment and good taste. She embraces the sex-positive language of Third Wave feminism (“I think every woman is a feminist in her own right”) while also dropping all the right indie-cool references: she cites David Bowie, Jean-Luc Godard, and The Last Mistress director Catherine Breillat as career inspirations. Whether or not she is as smart and worldly as her role models is less important than the fact that she’s trying very hard to come across that way.
There are some inherent contradictions in her work that her talking points don’t always address. Grey is conventionally attractive, but she has a different style than most porn stars. Her success, however, hasn't done much to change the untenable beauty standard upheld by most pornography. And her pro-sex worldview doesn't leave much room to criticize the overwhelming sexualization of all pop culture, particularly for younger and younger girls. “We have to have a version of our own story that allows us to get up in the morning. It necessarily involves not looking at certain things,” Soderbergh explains. He’s referring to The Girlfriend Experience, but he could have just as easily been describing Grey’s rosy view of the sex industry.
Though centered on sex, the film does not have a one-track mind. Set last fall, the piece works as a capsule of America in October 2008, when all anyone discussed, from hedge fund managers to Hasidic jewelers, was the economy, the election, or both. “The movie is swimming in its own juices by design,” said Soderbergh. “It’s so specific and lacking in perspective that it will hold up as a snapshot of that particular time and place.”
Even with the constant specter of the failing economy, Chelsea’s business appears to be recession-proof. But despite the luxe life she already leads—town cars, shopping sprees at Costume National, a floor-through apartment—she craves an even greater degree of success. One imagines this to be true of Grey as well. She says she’s already turned down roles playing strippers; instead, she wants a Charlize Theron-in-Monster kind of part.
Grey does acknowledge there is some stigma attached to her work: she currently lacks an agent because “other clients don’t want their agent to represent someone in adult films.” And in a way, it doesn’t matter: she has no plans to abandon adult films now that she’s breaking through to the mainstream. When she first got into adult films, she decided, “I’m ready to be a commodity.” Now, she says, “I’m ready to make that commodity benefit just me.”
The Girlfriend Experience is a seemingly instinctive blend of filmmaker, material and star. “I’m interested in the idea that [these men] are paying a real surcharge for intimacy,” said Soderbergh. Grey had a slightly more casual take on it: “Men paying for emotional support? It’s pretty hilarious.”