There are two ways of looking at a film (well of course not just two, but bare with me). One is Subject: You can watch a film expecting that any group of people are going to have varying points of view on its quality, because their level of interest depends on how much the subject appeals to them. OR Another is Composition: What the film is “about” could seemingly bore you to death; or you could just not “get it” (or want to), but the way it looks is clearly outstanding enough to warrant watching it.
Taking the first: On the surface, The Girlfriend Experience is a film about a woman who sells herself as an escort, giving the film’s title as a service, for a fee. If you want to be vulgar, like some people are at points in the film, she is what one might call a “hooker” (the act of ‘catching’ being inherent in the term). The film is getting a lot of publicity because this role is played by Sasha Grey (I leave you to find your own appropriate weblink). Most of the debate about this film centers around the idea of this being a major ‘crossover’ role for her in a movie by an ‘Academy Award winning filmmaker’ (that director being the multi-faceted Steven Soderbergh). Since I would tend to define film acting as anything caught on camera with the knowing participation of those being filmed, this would logically include Ms. Grey’s previous films. She is an actor (without the need for an adjective describing what kind). I will refrain from any comparative critical analysis, as I’ve only seen one of her other narrative films, which I only confess here because it actually touches on some of the same themes of identity and objectification (which is, of course, uber rare for the genre).
This film is in part about performance; we all have roles to to play and we construct those roles from the inside-out; meaning that nothing can ever really be taken at face-value as “true” if one is playing a role most/all of the time. This idea is, of course, complicated by the fact that we are watching a film in which everything is play-acted. Nothing is, in fact, supposed to be real, though we go along with it for the experience. It’s the nature of art to be artifice. A major point being made here is that a lot of reality just happens to be made up of it too (perhaps more so these days, as we are led to believe in the amount of “postmodern” Art that uses this as its subject).
Having a day(s)-in-the-life sort of documentary-like structure, the film uses our current reality (for those that have chosen/been forced to to accept it) as a backdrop; this happens to be the so-called “economic crisis“, which consists of countless number of people (our protagonist’s clients and otherwise) talking to (and at) her throughout the film about what is/should/will happen to our economy. There is, I assume, some intentional irony here in having conversations about money problems with someone practices “the world’s oldest profession”. That and the fact that the “economic crisis” itself is now the biggest show in town, so to speak, in most media outlets….
Coming back to the second: I believe that Soderbergh is clearly a talented filmmaker, though I’ve always had problems with being able to define a Soderbergh film as his. Not that his films should be so easily catergorizable (this variety is obviously a testament to his talent), but this film, like Solaris, The Underneath, and, of course, The Limey, presents itself in a kind of loose temporality; meaning that not everything is presented in the order it happened, resulting in a kind of puzzle-piecing that I suppose acts, among other things, as a slight attention-grabbing narrative device.
Soderbergh (who functions as his own director of photography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) also noticeably uses long shots to film scenes. One can either fault him for (perhaps intentionally) hiding the ability for us to clearly see the work of people who may or may not be considered “non-professional” actors, or one could praise this composition for its perhaps intentional, Antonioni-like use of visual space to underscore the mood and tone of the people being acted; suggesting that there might not be any real connection in the communication between these individuals. My inclination to suggest that this film is inspired by the composition of a film like L’Avventura is, I hope, not entirely off-base. Soderbergh and Co. have, without a doubt, created an accomplished very good ‘art film’, at least from a technical standpoint.
Ultimately, I think some viewers will fault that the film never really goes anywhere. It never really seems to come out and clearly “say” anything about the people it is depicting, most noticeably Chelsea/Christine/Sasha Grey. Yet, others may argue that the film gives you enough of the pieces to sort out your own plot. The non-linear structure and the repeatedly obfuscated portrait shots of Grey (see below) function as devices to help tell the “story”.
The economic crisis could seem like a wasted backdrop, but it is the motivating anxiety for the character to expand her business; everyone in this film fears of losing money in the future, and therefore losing the ability to maintain or improve their current lifestyle (which before hearing all these ‘horror’ stories, was a future she, like most Americans, was apparently, naively assuming would continue without fault). If you wanted to take a purely economic reading of the film, it seems to suggest that there is no separation of identity from its connection to money for these characters; there is no way to break down the “iron door” or see beneath the “armor” that we equip ourselves with in the artifacts of our own socio-economic status. The real person/nation-state is hidden away for us all to leash and unleash at our own discretion or whim, real or imagined. Or, perhaps some of us no longer have a “real” identity in which we can define. All the world’s a stage, and we are all mere players, etc…