Christine is a prostitute, but there’s much more to her transactions than just sex and money. What she provides instead is the girlfriend experience: a pretty woman to take on a date, converse with, embrace, share some intimacy, and yes, maybe a little sex. In exchange, Christine gets a lot more money than your average hooker.
When her work is done, Christine (Sasha Grey) comes home to Chris (Chris Santos), her boyfriend of more than a year. Right there you have enough conflict for a movie. Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman and director Steven Soderbergh know how to milk it.
But they don’t stop at jealousy; they fill the movie with great dialogue and insightful observations about the nature of men and the business of relationships.
Because her prices are high, Christine’s clients are well-off and generally well-behaved. Most of them want to talk about the economic collapse that was going on when the film takes place, in the fall of 2008. Their myriad investments are tanking. It’s causing them pain and they want to talk about it.
Christine seems to attract protective men. Most respect her decision to be a call girl and wish her well in business. They offer to connect her with colleagues who can help her business thrive.
The one creep she meets is no street thug, but rather an online critic. He asks her for “review copy” and in exchange he promises his readers will drive her prices higher.
The Girlfriend Experience keeps coming back to Christine’s home life with Chris. They share a surprisingly stylish and spacious apartment in New York City. It must be her money that furnishes it because he’s a personal trainer at a local gym.
Chris is nonchalant about Christine’s work. They sit down to dinner. He asks her how her day was, and she tells him. Even though she sells intimacy and sex, Chris has faith in her boundaries. Christine talks with a friend over lunch about those boundaries. They agree that sometimes “at work” they would really connect with a client, but there was always a boundary there that keeps the emotion from carrying them away.
But that scene raises the question about makes a boundary “artificial.” At some point, client or no, what’s happening is that women are going out with men. When does it stop being an “artificial” transaction and start just being life?
In a subplot, a male reporter grills her about those boundaries. He wants to know what kind of man it takes to get inside those boundaries, what it takes to get the real girlfriend from her, and not just the girlfriend experience.
Crossing the Line
So far the film is fascinating. It’s provocative, titillating, and surprising. Since everyone is a consenting adult, it’s not too uncomfortable, but it’s certainly outside most people’s safe zone.
And then the film crosses the line for one of the characters.
(Spoilers ahead.) Christine accepts a new naïve client, breaking one of her own business rules. She likes him. She considers going away with him for a weekend, which would breach another of her rules. Chris finds out and loses his nonchalance. His possessive instinct kicks in and he tries to put his foot down. Christine will have none of that; she calmly insists that she will try this weekend getaway and see what happens, that Chris has no right to stop her.
This is where the movie really gets uncomfortable, and in very interesting ways.
If Chris can be nonchalant about his girlfriend having sex with other men, then why can’t he accept her going away for a weekend with one of them? This time, she rejects the notion of a boundary, artificial or otherwise. Christine says she “needs” to try this out, and when push comes to shove, she demands the freedom to go. Chris is just another man who is not allowed to own her.
All of the men in the movie are culturally liberal. They recognize that Christine, like every woman, has the right to control her own destiny, her own body. Yet what Chris feels is betrayal, and how can he call it a betrayal without denying her right to choose her own life, without seeming a hypocrite?
In the heat of the moment, it’s very hard to see how Chris is not a hypocrite. The deviously well crafted sc
The movie is sure to push men’s buttons. The sense of betrayal has us reaching for any justification to control Christine — our paternal instinct kicks in. We stammer that the fact her business is illegal means there’s nobody she can call if something goes wrong. We point to her belief in “personalogy” (think horoscopes) and we use that as evidence of her bad judgment. But that’s just me(n) looking for some justification for my now-active sense of betrayal that was carefully dulled by the “consenting adults” section of the movie.
Rarely do I get worked up over sexual politics in movies. But The Girlfriend Experience managed to set me out of sorts. It made me question my own open-mindedness and made me realize how powerless men can be in the face of liberated women. It’s a movie that can push your buttons and make you uncomfortable, and not everybody will enjoy a movie like that. But it’s exactly the sort of intellectual and emotional challenge that makes me still love the cinema.