You might expect the mainstream film debut of well-known porn star Sasha Grey, in which she plays a high-priced Manhattan call girl, to be all about sex. But director Steven Soderbergh rarely does the expected, and he makes The Girlfriend Experience, for all its bed-hopping, a movie not about sex but about anxiety. Not even sexual anxiety, exactly—for its first half at least, Girlfriend seems to be primarily about economic anxiety, an extremely of-the-moment concern that already feels slightly dated (the movie takes place about a month before the 2008 presidential election). As Grey’s Christine (or Chelsea, as she’s known to her clients) moves from one encounter to another, which Soderbergh lays out in a nonlinear, impressionistic fashion, nearly everyone she interacts with expresses worry about the impending financial collapse. Although Christine, too, is concerned about money, and takes advice from some of her clients, she remains aloof, above these material concerns, and Soderbergh accordingly presents her story with a level of detachment that can seem cold and impersonal.
This is a movie about someone who’s cold and impersonal, however, which is often frustrating, but director and star work well together to present that united front. Grey’s performance is reserved seemingly to the point of inertness at times, but every so often Soderbergh will catch her eyes and you’ll witness more going on behind them than is ever presented in dialogue or action. With the jumbled plot (which, laid out end to end, would probably come off as rather mundane and uninspired) and carefully composed images (Soderbergh, as usual, serves as his own cinematographer), Girlfriend might have worked better as a series of art photographs than as a movie, but it does build a certain mood of uneasiness over its short (less than 80 minutes) running time.
That mood comes at the expense of any emotional involvement, though, and the fractured structure means that even the simple plot can be difficult to piece together (and not necessarily worth the effort). Many of the individual themes just peter out, although Christine’s complex relationship with her boyfriend (a personal trainer, selling himself in a different fashion) and frustrated higher ambitions are accorded a certain poignancy. Still, by the end, when Christine experiences moments of real devastation, Soderbergh hasn’t established the kind of connection necessary to make them mean anything. Like his heroine, he stays above the fray, delivering an aesthetically pleasing experience that nevertheless feels lacking in conviction.