Rolling Stone recently dubbed Sasha Grey the "dirtiest girl in porn," in a profile that covered everything from Grey's rise to porn superstardom (she won Adult Video News' 2008 Female Performer of the Year) to her brainy, rock 'n' roll persona and mainstream film ambitions. The young actress makes her arthouse debut in the latest film from the relentlessly prolific Steven Soderbergh, The Girlfriend Experience, but Soderbergh's ingenious casting leaves some doubt as to Grey's actual acting abilities.
Grey plays dangerously close to type as Chelsea, a high-end escort who charges a couple grand per hour for the "girlfriend experience" she provides. Chelsea goes on dates with her clients, watches movies, eats expensive meals, listens to their financial woes, accepts their advice ("buy gold!")—and at the end of every date, receives a wad of cash and returns home to her live-in boyfriend. "I should probably see a shrink, but it seems like more fun to see you," one client observes. Another talks ceaselessly as he undresses, marveling at how well he and Chelsea communicate—but there's no communication. There is, simply, a beautiful but unimaginative young woman providing exactly what she thinks her clients want, and the audience's voyeuristic angle on these transactions is fascinating.
In her journal, Chelsea meticulously notes which client she's seen and what she was wearing. She works on developing her website and improving her Google search standings. In several scenes, she's interviewed by a newspaper reporter who persistently tries to ferret out the "real" person behind the escort's facade. He fails. Chelsea steadfastly, serenely rebuffs any attempts to access her inner life, presenting a persona so unflappable that one starts to wonder if she does, in fact, have an inner life—and to wonder if Grey's actually a decent actress, or just a bad one who's been supremely well cast.
Chelsea's boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), is a personal trainer whose ambitiousness parallels her own. Both Chelsea and Chris depend on the vanity and insecurity of rich men—as such, trickle-down anxiety from the failing economy pervades the film, which is set during the lead up to the 2008 election. As he clinically observes the contortions of the pretty young people who profit off the rich, Soderbergh makes a rare cinematic acknowledgement: Beauty often promises what it can't deliver. Chelsea has systematically turned herself into a commodity, selling a willingness to be whatever her client wants her to be. Is her blankness the result of self-preservation or all-consuming self-absorption? Is there a real person behind the pretty face and body? Soderbergh asks these questions again and again in this enigmatic little film—and Grey just smiles distantly and touches her hair, revealing nothing.