Steven Soderbergh is a cerebral filmmaker. He's not unemotional, it's just that the first question he asks himself about every directorial choice seems to be "how does this work" as opposed to "how does this feel?" And his main characters often start out with their emotions compartmentalized because his interest in them depends on finding the breaking point where they can no longer ignore their feelings. Chelsea, the protagonist of The Girlfriend Experience, fits this description perfectly. She's a high-priced escort whose strict set of rules for dealing with clients allows her to maintain a seemingly healthy, honest relationship with her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer. But, when a new customer wants her to join him on a weekend excursion, she accepts, even though she knows this violates her bond with Chris.
All of this transpires during a few weeks in October 2008, when the country was embroiled in both the presidential election, and, more importantly, the sudden economic downturn. Soderbergh, along with scriptwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, consistently underscores that money is the chief concern for Chelsea, Chris, and everyone they come in contact with. She negotiates with a web designer to create a site that will build her notoriety, and she contends with the advances of a sleazeball extortionist (movie critic Glenn Kenny) who makes his living rating call girls on his own website; Chris tries to convince his boss that he should be a partner at the gym while accepting free trips to Vegas from one of his clients. In Soderbergh's cinematic universe, people focusing on their own economic advancement will inevitably fail in their personal relationships. He's revisited that idea time and again in characters like John in sex, lies, and videotape, as well as con man Danny Ocean in Ocean's Eleven.
The lead character in The Girlfriend Experience is no different in that regard, but it's his casting of porn star Sasha Grey as Chelsea that adds something new to the mix. It's hard to tell from her work here if Grey has the chops to maintain a career as a legitimate actress, but it's hard to deny that she gives Soderbergh exactly what he wanted for the part -- namely a flat, uncharismatic performance that keeps Chelsea a mystery to us. Other than money, we're not sure what motivates her, and that's in large part because Chelsea doesn't know, either. Her line readings are stiff, but purposefully so. Only when Chelsea's with a client -- when the character herself is giving her customers "The Girlfriend Experience" -- does the call girl seem to have something going on behind her eyes. Overall, it's an intriguing, emotionally guarded performance.
The Girlfriend Experience stands among the best of Soderbergh's many "little" films, where he recharges his artistic batteries and tries out new techniques before jumping back into the world of big budgets and superstars. For those inclined to follow him down every nook and cranny of his career, it will be a welcome reminder of how restlessly probing he can be about matters of the heart.