I was not a fan of Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film, The Girlfriend Experience. It belongs in the category of Soderbergh’s artistically sterile, experimental and inaccessible offerings, like Bubble, Full Frontal and Solaris. It’s a matter of personal preference, but I prefer movies with story, whereas Soderbergh prefers cold detachment and is opposed to the “tyranny of narrative” (his words).
I was therefore not expecting much from the new Starz series based upon the movie, executive produced by Soderbergh. It is stylistically similar, and in many ways, reduces sex to a cold and clinical transactional act, but the series does not completely eschew narrative. Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz — who write, direct, and run the series — have managed to give Soderbergh’s style some spark, and the characters feel like real people instead of disparate items in an art installation.
Seimetz and Kerrigan have given The Girlfriend Experience life, and infused the original concept with enough plot to keep us engaged. The series stars Riley Keough as Christine Reade, a law student who has just landed a prestigious unpaid internship with a corporate law firm. As an aspiring lawyer, Christine is ambitious, smart, and enigmatic. It’s impossible to get a read on Christine because she’s only what other people want her to be.
That skill comes in handy, however, when it comes to paying her way through the internship. After some encouragement by her friend, Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil), Christine enters a world not that dissimilar to the law: She provides a transactional service in exchange for a large hourly fee. It’s a parallel the series is clearly trying to make.
What’s most interesting, however, is the character study of Christine. She likes to be watched. She likes to look at herself. She likes to be on top. She likes to maintain control and power in her transactions, both legal and sexual. She studies her own body, and uses it as she would legal precedent in a corporate transaction.
However, Christine is so good at being what other people want her to be that it’s hard to get a bead on who she actually is. She even looks different from one scene to the next. That’s what is so compelling about The Girlfriend Experience. We want to know who she is; we want to peel back the layers and find out what’s underneath. Is she struggling with her decision to sleep with middle-aged men in exchange for money? Is she as empathetic as she appears to be with the men with whom she sleeps? Has she removed herself from the transaction? Is she a sociopath? Is she using these men for more than their money? Is the “girlfriend experience” providing her with another kind of education that she can use to dominate in the field of law?
It’s a fascinating character exploration, and Riley Keough — daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, granddaughter of Elvis — executes the character perfectly. She’s detached enough to sell the transactional nature of sex, but we can also sense that there’s something else ticking underneath, something that we want to understand. It’s that mystery that gives the character life and transforms the blithe sex scenes from Soderbergh’s movie into explorations of power and control. The sex in Soderbergh’s film felt cold and removed; here, it’s magnetic and charged. There’s life behind Keough’s eyes.
It makes for a transfixing series, and the half-hour episodes (there are 13 of them, which can all be watched On Demand) make the series more fast-moving and binge-able than typical hour-long dramas. It’s intelligent, sexy television given some additional depth by the performances of Paul Sparks (Boardwalk Empire) and Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), who are basically the opposite of Soderbergh’s indie-flick characters, in that they have living, breathing personalities. That, in essence, is what the Starz series has that Soderbergh’s film did not: A personality.