Finally, Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 experiment in sexless eroticism gets the TV spin-off some weirdo somewhere possibly asked for! Confession: Je suis that weirdo. Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience — low-budget, low-grossing, starring a porn star and a film critic and a Food Network guest judge — is my guilty-pleasure arthouse curiosity. Barely feature length at 77 minutes, the film is about Obama and about the Recession, and about how love and sex and friendship and even humanity have become commodified in the modern age. (Or, maybe, they were always commodities, and we’ve just gotten better at monetizing.)
But even if you missed the film — even if you aggressively loathed it! — you should still check out The Girlfriend Experience on Starz. Less of an adaptation than a freeform riff, TV-Girlfriend introduces Christine, a financially strapped law student embarking on a career odyssey as an escort. Christine is played by Riley Keough, who you may recall from Mad Max: Fury Road. She was the tough-sensitive renegade wife who sort of romanced Nicholas Hoult’s War Boy; duty bounds me to inform you that Keough is also the granddaughter of one Elvis Presley. Compared to Sasha Grey in the original film, Keough is a more approachable figure. She’s a striving young professional — and in the four episodes I’ve seen, the show pays as much attention to her work as a corporate-law intern as it does to everything else.
In the first episode, Keough hangs out with a fellow law student, who’s taken on a career as a high-class call girl. We see all the exciting stuff. The house on the outskirts of town, where a wealthy John lets her live. He lives in another town, probably with a wife and a family. It’s one of the show’s first indelible images: A big, beautiful, modernist-architected empty house, with cool cars in the garage, and nobody around to enjoy it. Why shouldn’t a couple young, attractive women have access to this empty house? Who says they have to “earn” it?
Grey’s Christine was a fundamentally passive figure in the Soderbergh film. Part of what makes the smallscreen Experience so interesting is how Keough’s Christine actively and aggressively moves into the callgirl world. She finds a madam and clients; she gets a better apartment, but thinks she could make more money as a private contractor. You’re aware at all times that Christine is both ascending and descending, becoming more powerful but also more desperate. Unlike the movie, the TV show has plenty of sex scenes – Starz! – but it’s also more humane. No client just wants Christine for her body. Middle-aged men with money, they want to feel young, or they’re searching for that feeling of new love. A couple of them use her as a kind of confessor, and you can never quite get over the essential tension of that interaction.
Christine is paid to pretend to care. There’s a scene in an early episode when a client breaks down to her, and without ever breaking her pokerface, Keough cycles through a few different emotions: First genuine concern, then pity, then the remote let’s-wrap-this-up terseness of a board meeting that’s running long. There’s a slipperiness to Christine’s central identity that powers the series: Pay special attention to how she talks about her family, and how her backstory changes, and how she seems energized by the lies.
Indie filmmakers Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan wrote and directed the series, and I’m struck by just how carefully they’ve constructed the show’s aesthetic. It’s not entirely clear where The Girlfriend Experience is set. The city vibes variously like non-casino Vegas, Century City, and a Manhattan that’s just endless Midtown. It was shot in Toronto, and like Orphan Black – another show about commodified female bodies – it uses that city as a radiant glassware utopia, with no culture besides power. Cards on the table: After four episodes, I could believe that The Girlfriend Experience is a profound meditation on intimacy, and I could also believe that The Girlfriend Experience is something much more fantastical, a daylight-noir origin story for Basic Instinct. Either way, I’m hooked.