The Girlfriend Experience

Manhattan Prospects


20 May 2009| No Comments on The Girlfriend Experience     by Sean Chavel


Provocative, but a little too arty. The Girlfriend Experience, centering around a $2,000 an hour girl, is a movie about sex without ever showcasing sex to its fullest act. It’s most lurid scene turns out disappointing when a client suffers premature ejaculation before he even has a chance to grope the half-naked Chelsea (Sasha Grey). What we do get unexpectedly is scenes of making-out. Guys pay for high-end escorts because of the extra kissing involved that men can’t get from a low-end prostitute. But what guys are really paying for is the affection and mental stimulation with a fantasy girlfriend. In accordance with today’s economy issues, the film has scenes of rich guys who use their paid time with her to talk about their money worries and financial rebound strategies.

So while the film isn’t about the sex act, it is about the paid companionship between the sexes. While sex is implicit at the end of the date, it doesn’t always end in sex. Clients spend their time taking Chelsea out to dinner, out to the movies, lounging and talking, and sometimes less than that. For many of these guys, a call girl is a therapist that will listen to their problems. While this Steven Soderbergh film (“Traffic,” “Bubble”) is about the psychology of johns, it is all seen through the point of view of Chelsea who takes notes on her clients in her diary (what’s the name of his dog, how many children does he have, how’s his income). She has become an expert on the common male identity.

Our lead character is played by an award-winning porn star. Sasha Grey makes her mainstream feature film debut after having starred in 150-plus porn movies. Prejudicial expectations makes one think that porn stars have only one talent. Grey surprisingly is an interesting actress. Perhaps at age 21, Grey already had an inside wisdom into sex and psychology, the sex trade, the adult industry mystique before she took this role. Whatever the case, she is a compelling actress in this movie who controls the frame, elicits desire and distinguishes a remarkable range of emotional depth.

Chris Santos, on right

Another first-time actor is Chris Santos as Chris who also makes his feature film debut. Santos was a high-priced physical trainer in real life before Soderbergh cast him in this film as – a high-priced physical trainer who happens to be Chelsea’s boyfriend. His character is perfectly OK with what his girlfriend does for a living. He is however dismayed when one day Chelsea tells him that she is going to go away for the weekend with a client. She has never left him for more than one night. Hints are present that Chelsea is interested in this weekend-getaway client for more reasons than just the money transaction. Although he sounds awfully wealthy.

The film does have a lofty conceits. The self-conscious avante-garde cinematography by Soderbergh calls attention to itself – the director loves blinding backlighting that leaves his foreground subjects underlit and blotchy. Soderbergh, when working on indie aesthetics, isn’t always the most all-inclusive director (excuse the pun). The key confrontation between Chelsea and Chris, as they mull over misunderstandings, is shot at wide-angle for too long a time, keeping us at a distance. As an editing scheme, Soderbergh’s intercutting between scenes can be disconcerting in how non-fitting his juxtapositions are. He slides the timeline back and forth to seldom positive effect.

Regardless of its blemishes, the film keeps enticing you with Chelsea’s on-the-job experiences. There is a running gag – a residual scene parceled out in bits throughout the film – with a guy who bores her at lunch that requires her to feign interest. Grey’s final reaction shot is priceless where she finally reveals the genuine boredom in her face. And there is a sleazy encounter with a “hobbyist,” a guy who sees endless girls and writes internet reviews on their performance. This is the only blatantly degrading moment for Chelsea in the film.

Soderbergh is thinking naturalistic mosaic, not plot. You do become aware that the film isn’t going to go anywhere (in the traditional narrative sense) but that let’s you narrow in on the natural performances of the actors. “The Girlfriend Experience” ambles along but it does arrive at the destination that sex for money can transcend the orgasm. There’s too much care involved for both parties post-coitus, and when a connection is made, however unlikely, two people lock in and listen to each other.


Film Cousins: “My Life to Live” (1962, France); “Mona Lisa” (1986, Great Britain); “Samaritan Girl” (2005, South Korea); “Slovenian Girl” (2009, Slovenia).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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