The Girlfriend Experience is one of Steven Soderbergh's bite-size, semi-improvised, shot-on-DV doodles (like Bubble or Full Frontal), and it's the best one he's made. As it opens, we see jagged medium-range shots of a man and a woman murmuring to each other in a taxi, a fancy low-lit bar, and a bedroom. By the time they wake up, we've more or less decided that they're a couple. Only they're not. The guy is some sort of wealthy finance dude, and the girl is a high-end escort who provides not just sex but conversation, canoodling over late-night wine, and morning-after chitchat the illusion of intimacy.
Shot during the early days of the economic crisis, The Girlfriend Experience is a mysterious and arresting look at how the culture of money turns love and desire into something you want to control. The escort, Chelsea, is played by Sasha Grey, a real-life adult-video star who is not so much a natural actress as a natural-born placid, affectless Barbie doll (imagine Eliot Spitzer consort Ashley Dupré with a touch of Demi Moore). The movie has the fascination of a documentary about a fictional character. Chelsea, with her ambitious teasing blankness, occupies the center of a crumbling mosaic of money, status, deception, and manipulated lust. We see her out with her clients; bickering with her live-in lover (Chris Santos), a gym trainer who pretends her job doesn't bother him; and in meetings, some sinister, that promise to advance her career. Chelsea's clients all seek ''the girlfriend experience,'' but they aren't alone; she, too, tries to barter herself into romance. Soderbergh has captured an America in which the line between selling out and selling yourself has never been thinner. (Available on cable via on demand) A