A word of warning for those going into The Girlfriend Experience expecting a sexy guilty-pleasure good time: “Sexy” is one of the least accurate ways to describe this new Starz series. But for those familiar with the Steven Soderbergh film that inspired the show, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The film centered around Christine (Sasha Grey), a high-end call girl who offered finance types the physical and emotional comforts of a romantic relationship without any deeper attachments. Soderbergh, working from David Levien and Brian Koppelman’s screenplay, saw in this scenario grist not for titillation but for a cold, clear-eyed examination of a world where even emotions are thought of as an investment. Soderbergh’s vision received extra topical resonance with the 2008 financial crisis, reflected by Christine’s many clients that talk to her about how the meltdown is affecting them personally.
The aftereffects of the economic collapse may be in the rearview, but emotions are still as mysterious as ever in this 13-episode reboot. Soderbergh, co-executive-producing with Philip Fleishman, recruited two bright lights from the indie-film world: Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, who build an original narrative that shares with the original film a title and the concept of an escort providing “the girlfriend experience.” Kerrigan—whose last two features Keane and Rebecca H. (Return To The Dogs) Soderbergh also executive-produced—has explored the world of prostitution before, in his 1998 sophomore film Claire Dolan, as the title character tries to get out of the call-girl business in New York. As for Seimetz, her gritty sunlit 2012 neo-noir Sun Don’t Shine suggested a willingness to dive into the psyches of troubled characters through close observation of human behavior.
“Troubled” is one way of characterizing Kerrigan and Seimetz’s Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a second-year law student introduced to high-class escorting by her friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil). Christine is so turned on by it that she decides to pursue prostitution on the side while continuing her studies and interning at the prestigious Chicago law firm Kirkland & Allen. One of the more unsettling aspects of The Girlfriend Experience is its refusal to go down the road of easy psychologizing, much less moralizing. Occasionally, dialogue exchanges shed direct light on Christine’s underlying attitudes. In episode four, “Crossing The Line,” Christine wonders aloud to her sister, Annabel (Seimetz), if she’s a sociopath and “abnormally selfish” after having admitted earlier in the episode that she only enjoys interacting with people if she knows something is being accomplished; episode 12, “Home,” includes a scene of her mother saying that Christine has always been something of an attention-monger.
But neither Christine’s own gestures toward self-awareness nor others’ articulated impressions can puncture her essential unknowability. Her every vocal inflection and physical gesture is seemingly fraught with layers of performance, leaving the viewer constantly questioning whether she’s being authentic or playing a role moment-by-moment. In this kind of environment, even Christine’s panic attack at a crucial juncture can be interpreted as a clever bit of calculation, and Keough triumphantly pulls off this excruciatingly difficult balancing act. But Kerrigan and Seimetz also reinforce the show’s elusive quality with an aesthetic that emphasizes sterility and distance. Steven Meizler’s digital videography is awash in glaringly white and glassy backdrops, dingy natural lighting, and shots that capture characters from afar, with the frame blocked off by windows or doorways to intensify a sense of eavesdropping on these people. Even the show’s music—David Paterson’s ominous ambient droning in the seven episodes Kerrigan directed, Shane Carruth’s evocatively chilly electronic score in Seimetz’s six—adds to the sometimes oppressively alienating feel.
The Girlfriend Experience is a deliberately off-putting experience, wholly uninterested in ingratiating the viewer in trying to dissect its main character. And yet, if you’re willing to bridge the distance the filmmakers impose, the show exerts an icy fascination. At first, Kerrigan and Seimetz offer the intriguing spectacle of witnessing a character being enveloped into a world unfamiliar to her, seeing her quickly learning the ropes of the escort business and interacting with some of her clients, and also seeing how it affects her studies and her performance at her internship. About five episodes in, a sort-of thriller plot develops, as one of Christine’s escort-client relationships eventually intersects with a conspiratorial storyline involving an on-the-rise attorney (Paul Sparks), with whom Christine initially interned and carried on a brief tryst.
Ultimately, the seemingly bottomless mystery of Christine Reade drives the show far past a simplistic tale of innocence corrupted. In a scene early in the first episode, she walks straight up to a guy at a bar, says she wants to have sex with him, and then proceeds to do so back at his place. This establishes from the get-go that Christine knows what she wants, so it’s only natural that she finds the control over her relationships and sexuality offered by the escort lifestyle immensely appealing. Putting aside her chosen, and still stigmatized, line of work, her development throughout these 13 episodes is similar to that of any young professional in a new field, slowly figuring out what it takes to succeed in the business. In Christine’s case, a certain hardening of emotion is necessary, a willingness to see people as little more than business transactions. This perspective may give her an empowering sense of agency, but it also leaves her alone in the end, along with a sense that she perhaps prefers the solitude of a life without emotional attachments. The viewer’s feelings toward Christine and her behavior are likely to remain unresolved—but Kerrigan and Seimetz’s refusal to psychologically and morally pin her down is exactly what makes The Girlfriend Experience, in its pungently moody and disturbing way, ultimately difficult to shake off.