AVN Reviews: The Girlfriend Experience

2929 Productions. D: Steven Soderbergh. Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Peter Zizzo, Glenn Kenny, Mark Jacobson, Timothy J. Cox, Timothy Davis, Jeff Grossman, Ted Jessup, Kimberly Magness, Ken Myers, Bridget Storm, Others. 77 Min.

One thing we know about Steven Soderbergh is that he doesn't shy away from contradictory characters – that is, characters with inner conflicts that sometimes manifest on-screen as they deal with their "lives."

This, perhaps, explains that while the "girlfriend experience" – a type of sexual service offered by prostitutes that includes intimacies such as French kissing, taking an interest in the client's inner life, etc. – is, in real life, warm and cozy, The Girlfriend Experience is rather cold and solitary. Stylistically, it's reminiscent of films from the 1950s and early '60s, the last gasps of the "Beatnik generation," that were meant to convey a feeling of ennui and depersonalization – and if that's what Soderbergh was going for, he hit the nail right on the head. The film plays hell with timelines, often showing scenes out of chronological order, and everything is seen either over-the-shoulder or, more usually, from below; there are no high-angle or "god shots" lording over this crowd!

Ennui likely being the intended mood, it goes a long way toward explaining Soderbergh's casting of 21-year-old porn star Sasha Grey for the pivotal role of Christine, or as her clients know her, "Chelsea." Grey conveys the realism of a young woman, presumably just out of college – she has haute couture tastes in art, clothing and jewelry – with no real direction to her life; just her string of clients (whom she diaries about in detail on her computer), shopping, chatting over coffee at trendy New York restaurants with a couple of gal-pals ... and her "real" boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer.

It's no coincidence that the two main characters in this rather disjointed play are "Christine" and "Chris," and early scenes play up what seems to be the Janus-like quality of their relationship, as both discuss the economy with their respective clients, and toward the end, after he's made plans to go to Vegas for the weekend with one of his "trainees," in part to check out the possibility of opening his own gym franchise, he gets into an argument with her because she's thinking about accepting an invitation from wealthy client Peter Zizzo to spend the weekend at a hotel upstate ... and admits to Santos that she thinks she and Zizzo may have a "connection" because one of her "star sign" books speaks favorably about his birthdate.

But at base, this is a movie about non-relationships masquerading as relationships: Grey and her clients, of course, but more importantly, Grey and Santos, who spend little time together – her work often takes her away from him overnight – and who never once say they love each other; just that they've "been together" for a year and a half. Grey, therefore, was the perfect choice to convey this impersonalism: She rarely shows emotion even as she, for instance, relaxes in bra and panties with a client on his couch — there's only one bare-breasted scene in the whole movie — tousling his hair as he tells her his troubles (financial, of course), or asks another client about his wife and kids. The closest she comes to betraying her humanity is when, obviously upset, she tells a client about a bad online review she's gotten from "The Erotic Connoisseur," a sleazebag (Glenn Kenny) who tried to trick her into a freebie by intimating that he'd send her and other girls to meet millionaires in Dubai.

Undoubtedly, there will be critics who will see Grey's seemingly lackluster performance and put it down as "bad (or "porn") acting," even though Grey never flubs a line or misses a cue. What they'll miss is that Grey has given Soderbergh exactly what he's looking for: A statement about the lack of any real humanity in the fake "girlfriend experience," a lack which sadly also spills over into such a performer's on-screen "personal" life.

It's a bleak message for a bleak age, which may impact the film's box-office receipts, but in the long run, the film may be remembered for its portrayal of a slice of rarely-seen life in the sexual wilderness.

See 'The Girlfriend Experience' gallery on avn.com.