Just as her character Chelsea draws on an arsenal of executive consultants to lend reality to her business — the girlfriend experience — I imagine Sasha Grey must have spoken with escorts herself to prepare for her first mainstream-ish feature, The Girlfriend Experience. If anyone involved with the production had to “live the story” by becoming a prostitute’s client, who better to have hire an escort than Grey herself? I would have offered.
Now that the film’s Tribeca premiere has passed, I can only give this public consultation: Porn ingénue Grey is white hot — though even with her arms around you, you would feel like you’re fucking in front of a distant mirror, catching her eyes here and there. She’s not there to make men feel like James Bond in the sack. She’s paid to get them to feel human again.
Director Stephen Soderbergh’s casting choices build toward the same strategically achieved reality that Grey’s character seeks. The young man playing her personal trainer boyfriend, Chris, is actual personal trainer Chris Santos. When Grey submits herself for review to a trollish man who operates an escort directory, we get a barely fictional tour of the real-life practice of TheEroticReview.com and its former CEO, Dave Elms, currently on the lam from charges of assault and conspiracy. Soderbergh, irresistibly, had a film critic take the Elms part — a small player attempting to call the shots in the sex business and get free play to boot. This slippage between the film and its players isn’t confined to the story: as easy as loading a clip of Grey at her most hardcore, audiences can rent The Girlfriend Experience on demand for $9.99. “The VOD actually has an additional scene at the end of film that is unavailable in theaters,” explains a rep for distributor Magnolia Pictures.
It works, too; after 70-odd minutes of looped-together vignettes, scenes that double back on one another, a string of moments we re-enter with the rhythm of sex work itself … all the long black hired cars, the impersonally taupe hotel interiors, the after-work interrogations with the left-at-home lover. For viewers who have never ended a date with an envelope stuffed with twenties, the shifting chronology and smeary digital video may imply evidence of the disconnected mind of an escort. But for working girls at this level, clients don’t blur into one; it’s the context holding them together — money, clothes, and secret correspondences — that does. You’ve bought one Blahnik, you’ve bought them all. You’ve considered crossing a lover’s line once, too, and it’s like you’re always hovering over on the edge of betrayal.
Grey is at her best when standing right on that line — a girlfriend you can buy who will still hold you through the night for her own pleasure off the clock, maybe. She carries herself not as a woman with a fractured self, but a finely controlled production of one. In the professional girlfriend business, getting a rep for being a good actress is a career killer. That Grey looks as if she’s hardly putting on a show here is just a hallmark of the role.