Though not always immediate or obvious, sex exists throughout Steven Soderbergh’s oeuvre. But it’s often hard to trace due to the director’s self-contradictory application of sexuality. His early works—Schizopolis, Out of Sight, and especially sex, lies, and videotape—portray sex as a cynical and occasionally dishonest pursuit, while later in his career, particularly in his more mainstream exercises, he willingly indulges in the smooth and otherwise salacious Hollywood version of sex. It could be simply that he isn’t interested in sex as a theme—others have pointed to the vigorous application of burgeoning digital cinema technologies as the most “erotic” aspect of his work. His most clear and powerful exploration of the subject easily lies in his Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, but his first and arguably mostly explicit foray is found The Girlfriend Experience, even if the actual depiction of sex, weaved with themes of late capitalism and American consumerism, is guarded and potentially misleading. In separating sex from a humanistic framework, however, Soderbergh creates one of cinema’s most arresting and honest depictions of sex in the 21st century.

The first thing people generally mention when discussing The Girlfriend Experience is star Sasha Grey, the then-21-year-old adult film star who emerged as a major cinephile crush after the film was released. (She’s a big French New Wave fan, and once performed under the pseudonym Anna Karina.) Those less smitten were quick to pan her acting ability, blaming her stilted manner and emotional distance on the bogus idea that she’d never done any “real acting.” In the film, she plays a sex worker whose wealthy Manhattan clients pay an arm and a leg for her unique “girlfriend experience” service. In addition to sex, she provides what’s basically simulated companionship. Sometimes, she doesn’t sleep with her johns at all—cuddling, talking and affection are enough to create the desired experience of having a girlfriend. This presents the character—legal name: Christine, “girlfriend” name: Chelsea—with issues of identity and self-image, and it gives the director the space to treat her as a symbol of sexual commerce, which, appropriately enough, is exactly how her privileged clientele treat her.

But unlike the clients, Soderbergh also sees the character as an aesthetic object, a view he shares with Grey. The actress describes her porn films as “performance art,” and her philosophical approach to erotica makes her an ideal study for this particular strand of proprietary transgression.

We quickly learn that Christine/Chelsea is wholly above the criticisms of what is generally considered a taboo profession, and is therefore above any potential judgment on the behalf of her clientele. The various subplots that depict her interactions with her customers drive home the idea that morality, like beauty, in is in the eye of the beholder. All that matters to Soderbergh is to recognize the character’s aesthetic value. Through a series of complex editing patterns and avant-garde framing techniques, he illustrates the way her icy demeanor and lack of interiority help create a world where sex and performance have multiple meanings. In other words, what we see is what we get.

Ultimately, an economic imperative informs all of Christine’s/Chelsea’s interactions. Her product is her body and her personality. A thorough businesswoman, she writes a meticulous report for each client session, noting everything from the kind(s) of sex performed to the topics of conversation to the kind of clothes she’s wearing. She operates her own website and has an accountant look after her books. She even consults what’s basically a “sex critic” (played by real-life film critic Glenn Kenny), who offers to rate her services on his blog.

Like the self-reflexive Ocean’s 12, The Girlfriend Experience is a film about its own creation, and Christine/Chelsea is the economic force behind it. In addition to representing the merger of sex and commerce, Christine/Chelsea—and Sasha Grey, by proxy—also symbolizes the merger of performance and commerce, of art and business. And if sex can adequately by described as a sort of merge—of hearts and minds, of bodies and desires—then The Girlfriend Experience makes clear the sexual nature of making film. But more than that, it captures sex’s unique role in contemporary cinema. Placed under the guise of hyper-capitalism and arriving at a time of economic freefall, The Girlfriend Experience isn’t merely sex in film, but sex as film.

  • The Laundromat

    Relentless innovator Steven Soderbergh drops the iPhone and returns to the RED for his lat…
  • Holy Hell! Out of Sight Turns 20

    While its sexual energy sizzles, the love story at the heart of Soderbergh's film may burn…
  • Unsane

    Unsane, shot entirely on iPhones, is a new experiment for Soderbergh, which makes it as qu…
  • Revisit: Pet Sematary

    Easily Stephen King’s darkest and most nihilistic work. …
  • The Hummingbird Project

    A financial thriller backloaded with existential weight that seems culled from an entirely…
  • Anna and the Apocalypse

    Part Christmas movie, part zombie movie, part musical and part teen romance, a curious and…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Revisit: Pet Sematary

Easily Stephen King’s darkest and most nihilistic work. …