Here they come now: Chelsea’s boys

A girlfriend experience, by urban definition, is a high-class, high-cost relationship with a call-girl, who under the provisions of the transaction will provide sex (with protection), oral sex (without protection) and generally maintain the minute actions and idiosyncrasies that come with a dedicated “girlfriend” relationship. Now that we are familiar with the basic law of the land, we can begin. This the premise of Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, “The Girlfriend Experience.”

Meet Chelsea, a call-girl who is currently in the midst of several girlfriend experiences with multiple men, including living with one of these romantic fun-seekers for the past 18 months. Some have wives and children, and all have hearty bank accounts. We learn very swiftly that Chelsea is quite a pricy dish on the Manhattan call-girl menu, as her “boyfriends” regularly send limos to drive her to fancy restaurants, and later, to even fancier hotels. The whole transaction is done with minimal secrecy and is treated informally, with each meeting to see Chelsea consisting mostly of conversation, rather than the lustful flings one shamefully shuffles away from when caught.

The film is set in the months before the 2008 election, a topic that factors into more than one conversation with Chelsea’s boyfriends. As more and more of these menial, blasé topics find their way into these faux relationships, the film’s psychology shifts from the enigmatic charisma of Chelsea to her boyfriends’ motivations for their transactions. A simple sex trade requires a little bit of mental meandering, but to kiss and kid around in pretend romance, despite having a loving family elsewhere, requires much more brainstorming. It’s this subtextual inner-dialogue that really gives the film its lasting value, despite the fact that it always circles back to Chelsea and her feelings toward these men and her duties.

Stephen Soderbergh’s film, named after this high-cost interaction, examines all these relationships in intimate detail — not in narrative-driven sex sequences (the film has rather sparse nudity, actually), but in camera proximity and subtle acting. Surprisingly, real-life adult film star Sasha Grey gives a performance of thought-provoking depth, putting on the airs of each girlfriend based on her client’s likes and dislikes, but always keeping a wall between this false persona and her inner self.

We notice all of this because Soderbergh’s camera adores Grey, often taking the place of the many boyfriends to get her subtle reactions and facial expressions in greater detail. The performances from Chelsea’s boys vary from tolerably amateurish to well-rounded, with most able to fill out enough of a character to provide further variety to the film’s motley male cast.

Like most of Soderbergh’s work, the film flows at a pace some would term languid, others lethargic.

Despite its relatively short run time of a lean 80 minutes, if the film fails to grasp your attention within the first couple scenes, it will seem infinitely longer. This is a film that requires at least some marginal effort from the audience to garner a true appreciation. If you manage to get gripped by ‘Experience,’ then the story alone will intrigue you. The design work on the film – costume, set and audio – is simple, and refrains from attracting too much attention, but as the film progresses, the minimalistic design feels bland and unambitious. Even a slight upgrade to Chelsea’s wardrobe or a more poignant soundtrack could have pushed this film closer to masterpiece status.

As such, Soderbergh’s “Girlfriend Experience” is a wonderfully deep and enriching film to be beheld by anyone willing to watch 80 minutes of close-ups of a particularly talented adult-film star.