Another handsome couple out on a date, taking wine at a sleek Manhattan bistro. "Did you like the movie?" he asks. She did.
And so begins The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh's short and anything-but-sweet case study of a high-priced escort and the men, and money, in her life.
Made last fall, as the presidential election and the plummeting economy dominated headlines, the beautifully photographed (by Soderbergh) digital feature is moderately compelling and clinical. This isn't Breakfast at Tiffany's; this isn't even Klute.
Christine/Chelsea (her escort name), played by the porn star Sasha Grey with a smart wardrobe and a flat affect, matter-of-factly goes about her business. She keeps a journal in her laptop ("I wore a Michael Kors dress . . ." "It was a very awkward departure . . .") and takes a wad of bills ($2,000 an hour is her rate) to the bank. Her clients - hedge-funders, showbizzers, international guys - advise her on investments. She lunches with an escort friend, sharing stories, trading advice.
And she lives with a boyfriend (Chris Santos), a personal trainer at a gym, who knows what she does for a living and doesn't seem to mind. In his own way - but far less lucratively - he's trading his body (or his clients' aspirations to have a body like his) for cash, too. In The Girlfriend Experience, everything is a transaction.
Despite the presence of Grey, a petite and slightly goth-looking figure with 80-plus porn films on her resume, there is hardly any onscreen sex in Soderbergh's film. There is precoital and postcoital chatter, there are town-car rides to trendy hotels, and there are a couple of sleazy encounters. (The sleaziest: a slobby escort ratings-service entrepreneur, played by film critic Glenn Kenny.) Grey is relaxed and unselfconscious on camera, but she is not the next Kate Winslet.
It's impossible to come away from The Girlfriend Experience with anything resembling an emotional response. Coldly voyeuristic, the film is a piece of cultural anthropology that doesn't even pretend to get into the soul of its characters. Chelsea/Christine goes from one assignment to the next - briefly believing that a particular john might be the stuff of a serious relationship. She screens new clients over the phone, reads her journal entries as voice-overs, goes shopping, and stares out the window of her downtown loft.
And Soderbergh cuts away from his subject to catch a reflection of light in a pane of glass, or a painting on a wall that looks nice but says nothing at all.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea