Steven Soderburgh's new film The Girlfriend Experience, which stars adult film actress Sasha Grey, explores how its characters confuse fantasy and reality, and attempts to do the same for its pornography-literate audience members.
The film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday, will be released on May 22 in New York and Los Angeles and on demand on the TV network HDNet. It follows an escort named Chelsea who charges $2,000 an hour to act as a client's girlfriend for the night, providing more intimacy than just sex. (In the film's opening scene, Chelsea and her client are shown at a chic Manhattan restaurant discussing the film they just saw - Man on Wire - going back to his apartment and making out, and then having breakfast and reading The New York Times together the next morning.) The story takes place over five days in October 2008, and is partially improvised by the mostly unprofessional actors, who play versions of themselves, like New York magazine staff writer Mark Jacobson, who plays a journalist, and movie critic Glenn Kenny, who plays an escort reviewer. (Some readers may recall that Kenny served as writer David Foster Wallace's editor and sidekick when the duo attended the AVN Awards for a piece for Premiere magazine.) But the casting choice that has garnered the film so much attention is that the main character is played by real-life porn star Sasha Grey.
At the Tribeca Film Festival, Soderburgh explained that he chose Grey precisely because of her porn persona, The Guardian reports. "With Sasha, you can within seconds see her do anything you can imagine with her clothes off," he said. "What you can't see is what it's like to be her boyfriend, to hang out with her and be emotionally intimate with her. So my whole theory is that's the fantasy for those who've been double-clicking – that they want to spend 77 minutes being her boyfriend."
As Soderbergh put it, Sasha Grey is "not the normal adult film star." Grey is 21, but has appeared in 150 adult films and branded herself as a "new" kind of pornstar since beginning her career at the age of 18. According to the Associated Press, Grey is known for "pushing the boundaries of normal sexual acts," but, "she maintains she's always in control." Vanessa Grigoriadis, who profiled Sasha Grey for the new issue of Rolling Stone explains:
Sasha Grey is the adult industry's reigning princess of porn, a rock & roll 21-year-old with an actual mission statement - "Most of the XXX I see is boring, and does not arouse me physically or visually. I am determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone's fantasies" - and few taboos.
Grey, who is co-managed by former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro (and appeared in the porn film he directed), has modeled for American Apparel, and sung with the reggae musician Lee "Scratch" Perry. She says she is striving to make porn more artistic; Grigoriadis asserts she is changing the relationship between feminism and porn:
"Porn has been one of feminism's most divisive issues because it hits on such a raw level to so many woman. Here are the fantasies of men, and it's of course better to live out those fantasies through pornography than to try to do them in the real world, but the fact is the real world is impacted by it. Grey says, ‘If you look at me and you think "Here's a woman who's intelligent, cognizant and making her own choices, and you still tell me that what I'm doing is wrong, screw you, because that should end the debate.' "
Grey's appearance in The Girlfriend Experience has been interpreted as the first step in her attempt to go mainstream like former adult actresses Traci Lords and Jenna Jameson, but according to our sister site, Fleshbot, (link NSFW):
If anything, we suspect that Sasha is attempting to remake the notion of what a mainstream star is, and does-much the way she's remade any notions of what an 18-year-old pornstar looks and sounds like .... it's also possible that Sasha could rise to fame in the mainstream cinema while continuing to work as an adult star-perhaps completely remaking our notions of what it means to have crossover appeal.
Though Grey doesn'tactually have sex on screen in The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh says that he felt comfortable casting her because "Porn is beyond everywhere now." He told Time Out New York that he thinks prostitution should be legal and does not consider the prostitute in his film a victim. When asked what he would say to someone who has been roped into a life of prostitution, he replied:
Well, there are people for whom that is true. That's not the case with Chelsea any more than it is with Sasha in the adult-film industry. But, yeah, I think whatever agreement two people want to come to about whatever is really none of my business. I don't know what the difference is between that and what I'm doing for Sony Pictures right now [directing Moneyball].
According to the Village Voice review:
Like Godard, Soderbergh views prostitution as the ultimate paradigm for capitalism. But where Godard saw the hooker as a tragic or exploited victim, Soderbergh suggests there are no victims, only failed traders, in the post-Reagan era of DIY capitalism.
And, says Variety's review, the film de-emphasizes the sex involved in Chelsea's work and portrays her as a woman in control of her own get-rich-quick scheme, much like her clients who strive to make a fortune in the world of finance.
From reviews and interviews, it appears Soderbergh was striving for some sort of meta commentary on how capitalism makes prostitutes and porn stars of us all. The johns in the movie delude themselves into thinking they're experiencing a higher level of intimacy with "the girlfriend experience" than they would by just having sex with a prostitute. Similarly, Soderbergh suggests that audience members, who have presumably seen Grey's porn films, will delude themselves into thinking they are experiencing her on a more intimate level by watching her act in a mainstream film rather than a porn film. But by focusing on a high priced escort who chose to get into prostitution, and having her portrayed by an actress described as an atypical pornstar who feels in control of her career, he conveniently ignores the fact that many women in both industries are exploited. Soderbergh is certainly allowed to use the old fantasy of a sex worker who simply loves her work. However, by ignoring the uglier side of the sex trade, he undermines his argument that his film reflects any underlying truths about sex, pornography, or society.
Trailer for The Girlfriend Experience:
Steven Soderbergh On The Girlfriend Experience: 'I Hired Real People And Turned Them Loose' [The Guardian]
Porn Star Sasha Grey Stars In New Soderbergh Film [The Associated Press]
Sasha Grey, The Dirtiest Girl In The World: The Story Behind The Story [Rolling Stone]
Sasha Grey, Crossover Star (NSFW) [Fleshbot]
Steven Soderbergh Interview [Time Out New York]
Soderbergh's Girlfriend Experience Porn-Star Is A True Character [The Village Voice]
The Girlfriend Experience Review [Variety]