The politics of pleasure are brutally uncovered in the new Starz drama, The Girlfriend Experience. The series features 13 half hour episodes produced by the infamous Steven Soderbergh and co-written by independent filmmakers Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. Viewers are invited to absorb and observe the icy yet aloof Christine Reade, played by Riley Keough, a Chicago law student turned high-class prostitute who prices the exchange rate of intimacy, a luxury that will never satisfy her sociopathic tendencies.
As charming as she sounds, initially Christine is only vacantly interested in the idea of escorting. A friend shows her the ropes in the first few episodes, in which she also begins an internship at a top tier law firm. Without much convincing and with much curiosity, she joins the escort profession as Chelsea, where her initial fascination in understanding the idiom of sexually transactional relationships becomes the premise for her role play.
We watch as her life navigates client relationships in the office and client relationships outside the office – both postulating a powerplay she can’t resist, where they use her as much as she uses them. From actively involving herself in obstruction of justice to vacant mid-afternoon sex with 60-year-old CEO’s, her relationships are a business deal in which the world between sex and law is blurred in it’s frail opulence. Further, we are greeted with similarities: Tall glass windows, vacant social gatherings, raw sex scenes, intelligent adults behaving like teenagers – both worlds fail to mask their internal frustration. We observe Christine as she observes others, treating both worlds equally. “I just don’t like sharing my time with anyone, unless something’s being accomplished,” she confesses at one point, before asking if she might be a sociopath.
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody says the cinematographic style of the series as “artistic as well as an epistemological disaster [in which] the sequence tacks information to the screen and suppresses the time in which the events unfold.” In its banality, I agree, but I think this works in its favor as the viewer can visualize Christine’s fragmented (and somewhat bored) understanding of reality. Brody sees the series as a unified, step-by-step story in which information is delivered but the actors and action never exist. I agree, but I think the tone of the series is meant to account for her disregard for action in her icy observation of her own reality.
Undoubtedly, we’re caught up in her double life (I literally couldn’t stop watching once I started), until a sex tape is emailed by a vindictive client to her colleagues and family (friends are non-existent). Her sociopathic tendencies are only solidified in the scene where the email is blasted and she decides not to flee the firm. Only once she is fired does she react humanly, having a significant panic attack to then be escorted out of the office. In a cab on the way home, something inside her clicks and she blankly resists victimhood. Her co-worker is shocked when Christine decides she feels like stopping for a burger… she’s starving. Here, the character refuses the viewer to feel sorry for her. From this moment, we are observing Christine, rather than the life she is leading, much more closely. Her behavior introduces a theme of imaginative psychology that runs throughout the series – the undeniably close contrast between the lawyer and the prostitute is a puzzle the viewer wants to solve.
Cold, smart, and inexorably self-involved, she has no sense or more importantly, care, of how her actions could hurt or disappoint others in her personal and professional life. The viewer is then confronted, however, with an eerie level of respect for her as she navigates her own individual desires, albeit selfish and completely promiscuous. By the end of the series, her refusal to conform to what is expected of her by general society is inspiring, but at the same time she has gone too far to turn back. On top of this, the viewer can’t help but feel sorry for her, as she falls further and further down a proverbial rabbit hole – you just want to shake her and send her off to a psychologist.
Co-writer Amy Seimetz see’s Christine’s character as her personal Monica Lewinsky. “I’ve always been fascinated with people’s’ choices, or some sort of character trait which is either their superpower—which is how Soderbergh describes it—or her tragic flaw,” Seimetz told W Magazine. “I think simultaneously the thing that makes her a superhero is also what is tragically wrong with her.”
After her professional and personal relationships crumble, the double life becomes one, and she refuses to apologize for it. The last episode is essentially one long roleplay sex scene, showcasing how far she has come and how far she is willing to go to push her sociopathic boundaries of satisfaction and get lost in the game while mirroring the level of control she has over men – ultimately speaking to her behavior throughout the whole series. [The viewer sees] “this young girl transform over the course of the season into this, like, holy shit factor of how far she’s come,” Seimetz revealed to W Magazine. “Now she’s mastered this art form, if you want to call it that.” I would call it a lot more than that.