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Girlfriend Experience: Season One
The world of The Girlfriend Experience feels thrilling and alluring but simultaneously isolating and full of invisible boundaries. Every character operates with a hidden agenda. The ticking clock of suspense is if you don't discover the other's agenda by asking the right questions quickly you won't find out how their agenda can sabotage yours until it's too late. People, even supposed friends, can shift personalities on a dime.
Christine Reade is played with fierce intelligence in a delicately subtle and incredibly brave performance by Riley Keough. She's definitely an actor to keep an eye on for future work. We are introduced to Christine as a strong-minded individual. From the opening episode when she's with her friend Avery ordering champagne and food on some guy's card, it's immediately clear that she's the leader of the two."You can be whoever you want to be," her friend Avery her tells her when Christine is first thinking of how to present herself as an escort.
It's clear in Christine's generally placid demeanor and in her adept handling of her first few "clients" that she's more cut out for the work than her friend Avery will ever be. Christine is calm on the surface, other than an occasional calculated outburst. A keen observer by nature, almost predatory in her deliberateness, she builds information watching others without speaking, thus maintaining mystery about what she's actually thinking or feeling. In the opening episode, Christine approaches a young man in a bar, tells him exactly what she wants and they leave for her hotel room. Once in the room, she tells him she likes him and has him watch her masturbate. However, the next morning she's packed up and ready to go, clearly uncomfortable and wants to leave. It's re-iterated throughout the season that Christine doesn't want to connect deeper with him or anyone else for that matter. Connection in Christine's world is dangerous.
Separation from her emotions and other individuals is a strategic advantage for Christine. One main threat against her is revealing her identity as an escort. First Madame Jacqueline threatens to expose her with the photos she had commissioned. Another danger is clients who become too close and fall in love with her or want to control her behavior. We see she has a high aptitude for navigating this potential landmine. One client asks for a discount so he can keep seeing her, she soothingly suggests they meet up a little less so he can save money. The balance for her is to keep her distance while satisfying their desire to feel connected to her enough to continue the relationship to her advantage.
Christine's performances give her clients an outlet for their sexuality in a way that is authentic for them. She can almost read their desires without them telling her directly. Her perception of what her clients want is perfect. Her mental torment of them is complete and loving in its pain. She knows how to hit their psycho-sexual spot perfectly. Like watching a maestro playing a musical instrument, you get the feeling of someone brilliant at their work. Christine is possibly a genius.
Her sociopathic tendencies appear to just make her even better at her new after-hours gig. In the opening episode we see her at a job convention for young law students. Her social intelligence and quick wit allows her to immediately figure out what they want and repeat it back to them verbatim, with just the right level of enthusiasm to leave an impression. Quickly, Christine finds herself not just living a double life, but a triple life: law student, intern at prestigious law firm, and escort. All while sleeping only several hours a night. Christine's natural iciness helps her fit in well at the law firm she's interning, where lawyers pride themselves in skillfully trading barbs and jockeying for position of who's the smartest person in the room.
However, Christine's not a complete robot, we do get drafts of lukewarm feelings. She's loyal at times, standing up for her friend Avery when Avery is on the outs with Jacqueline, the Madame. When something tragic happens to one of her clients, she's unable to perform her duties that night with a new couple, instead locking herself in the bathroom crying and drinking. She seems surprised by her own feelings, unable to ever fully understand where they come from or why they are necessary. Christine's inner world is mostly communicated in sound design. With her first John, rumbling tense soundtrack elements contrast cool exteriors or small details such as a nervous swallow other characters don't see indicating Christine has some feeling about these interactions in a way that builds empathy with the audience.
The structure of the narrative creatively builds tension and mystery. For instance, at the end of one episode we hear Christine tell a client over drinks what we assume is a truthful slip about her real family life: that she has a brother who isn't very smart. Then we find out in the very next episode we she doesn't have a brother, she has a sister. Narrative ellipse is creatively used at the beginning of the episode Boundaries, a man we don't know comes up behind her and dunks her head in the pool. She's enraged and yells for him never to do that again, then later we find out what leads to that moment. At the beginning of episode Separation we're dropped into an argument with her and someone we've never met, making us have to catch up to what's happening and question what is real and what is an act. All these wonderful techniques lead back to focusing audience attention on the enigma that is Christine.
The daylight visuals mostly have an intentional and very slight greenish or bluish tint, communicating a coolness. Nighttime interiors balance this with some pockets of tungsten warmth with pools of surrounding darkness. Overall the picture is crisp and detailed, reflections pop and nighttime shots have the appropriate level of contrast. The look feels very cinematic and reminiscent of the recent films of David Fincher. The disc is mastered in 1080p in an aspect ratio of 1:78:1.
The sound is immersive. Narratively it is used to communicate details specific to the point of view of the main character. Included tracks are Dolby True HD 7.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0. Also included are English Subtitles for the hearing impaired and Spanish Language subtitles.
• An Inside Look (2:17) Some of the key actors and creators discuss the basics of Christine's character and what leads into the narrative.
• What Is The Girlfriend Experience? (2:12) Describes the definition of what a GFE provider is. Also further's some of the detail of understanding Christine's point of view and interest in the lifestyle.
• The Look Of The Girlfriend Experience: Voyeurism Is Here (1:52) They discuss how they used minimalistic lighting and camera choices to create the feeling of seeing private moments and a voyeuristic style.
Christine Reade has the same appeal of the male leads audiences have grown to love in Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos. Like the gangster heroes of forties noir and beyond, Christine is willing to cross societal lines in a way that we the audience either can't or would fear the real consequences in our lives. In this way, the show serves as a satisfying exploration of our own darker human desires we'd rather not admit to.
Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan have done fantastic work adding the appropriate levels of depth and nuance in this character study. The clever writing and technical brilliance here in the television format better accomplish what was probably the intent of the original Soderbergh film. Not only is no character here simply who they are assumed to be at first glance, but none of them seem to know who they really are even in their most private moments alone. In dealing with the subject of identity, some of the fairly deep questions the show effectively poses are: Who is anyone really? Are we just what we present to others? Can we ever really connect with other people or is that just an illusion?
Rating: Highly Recommended