Tuesday 12 February 2019

Article: The Pursuit of Pennies

*Spoilers are about.

The final shot of Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009) floored me upon a recent rewatch. After spending just over an hour of it’s economical running time, observing the lifestyle of Christine; a high-end escort and her relationship with different clients as well as her boyfriend Chris, the film’s essence is boiled down to its purest moment in the film’s closing sequence.

The scene itself seems pretty innocuous. Christine (then real-time Porn Star Sasha Grey) is invited into the backroom of a Jewish Jewellers by the owner whom we identify as a client for the services that Christine provides. They talk briefly about the upcoming election, in which the client recommends Christine (or Chelsea if we go by her escort name) should vote for John McCain over Barack Obama. He dominates the conversation, she merely responds in rather basic platitudes. As they talk, they undress unceremoniously. For a film with a porn star as the lead, it only really displays Grey in any real sexual fashion briefly, although many conversations in the film highlight her attractiveness. Framed in mid-shot which captures two-thirds of Grey body in full but is set at a distance which halts the observation of her body as gratuitous or titillating, she walks towards her client, a heavy-set man and they embrace. He begins to sob.

Soderbergh’s movies often involve how people operate for the pursuit of money, yet what I found so striking with The Girlfriend Experience is how the film deals with the element of control the chase. Throughout the film, we’re supplied with a plethora of talk about the economy. It all comes from Men. Nearly every man within the film is telling Christine what she should do with her job. From how she should approach men, to trying to find out how she keeps her accounts. They all want a piece of her. They pull of ruses to try and pay less for her services or “get to know the real her”. Despite the boundaries which are set in place by people within the film, everyone is looking to break them. However, it’s in this small moment in which we realise that all the bluster and bravado. All the posturing. It all comes down to that base wish of getting an attractive woman to need you. An urge so powerful it can make a grown man weep.

One of Soderbergh’s more experimental affairs, The Girlfriend Experience came out to middling reviews, with much of the focus being fixed on Sasha Grey’s “coming out” to the mainstream. The choice of Grey here is a masterstroke from Soderbergh. Her flat portrayal of Christine is deceptive. It suggests a bad performance. However, in my eyes, having seen Grey in some of her pornography, as well as her rather limp performances in Entourage, her near unemotive turn here is a clear decision between actress and director for a character who is purposely not letting anyone into what she really feels. If the film had been given to another actress, there’s every chance that they could have overegged their performance, letting the audience know exactly what they’re thinking. Grey’s face, which at one point is covered by huge sunglasses as to hide her eyes, feels like a mirror, reflecting the emotions given by those around her.

The film seems to go on around Christine and to me, this seems to be the point. We jump from conversation to conversation which ranges from how the economic climate will affect her work, to gross clients trying to obtain freebies from her to guarantee good reviews. However, despite whatever’s being said, everything boils down to that final moment. She has what they want. Payment is negotiable, but there will still be paying. What’s fascinating is just how well Soderbergh has transferred some of the clear issues we are now seeing in the gig economy. Looking into my other hobby of Portrait and model photography, it’s more than a little concerning how it would only take a small amount of script tinkering to have it apply to the amateur photographer scene, and yes, I do mean some of the more dubious elements too.

After the release of the film, directors Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz took the material and turned the source material into a TV show, with new characters and storylines. The Girlfriend Experience TV series is far less of an experimental slice of life endeavour that Soderbergh devised and is a more familiar and explicit affair. Gone is the semi-provisional feel, and what we’re given instead is a political espionage show with a variety of different, difficult female leads which sometimes holds more in common with the erotic thriller genre than the more ponderous take of Soderbergh. 

In any case, what I found most intriguing about The Girlfriend Experience is how both the show and the film are invested in delivering agency to female characters who are hard to catalogue into simple terms. My favourite visual on the film comes around about halfway through when Christine, positioned centre framed, sitting on the edge of a hotel bed, is getting her feet massaged by a client; David, who is so low down in the shot he is almost out of it. It’s a moment which, despite some of the things which are about to occur, subtly hints at the metaphor which takes place in the aforementioned finale. The dynamics shift throughout the film, but it is within these moments that we gain a glimpse at what’s going on. Where the agency is. Why men write bad reviews of Christine when they don’t get their way and why they are sometimes so despondent when she gives them a chance to touch her. If the economy tanks, then there’s less money to go around. Less to brag about. Less to impress with. You can’t impress Christine if you can’t pay her. Maybe that’s why they cry.