Daniel doesn’t understand why he can’t have a relationship with his girlfriend Maddy and date prostitutes for fun on the side – a practice he calls GFE (Girlfriend Experience). But when Maddy dumps him and Daniel starts purchasing GFE from a mysterious prostitute, the lines between sex and love, fantasy and reality, begin to blur. Sometimes love can be lot more expensive than sex.
eyelights: the cinéma vérité style of the picture. the mixture of “documentary” and “behind-the-scenes” footage.
eyesores: the obvious direction of the plot.
‘GFE: Girlfriend Experience’ is a 2008 Canadian motion picture by Ileana Pietrobruno. Shot in and around Vancouver, BC, it follows David Lewis, a middle-aged man who is addicted to sex workers. Despite its consequences on his relationships and career, he begins pursuing the attentions of Adrian, a sex worker who specializes in the Girlfriend Experience.
What makes ‘GFE’ stand out from other such films is twofold:
Firstly, Prietrobruno chose to focus on the male client, not on the woman, in effect turning the tables: whereas this type of story would usually follow the female sex worker, leaving the John in the shadows, here it follows Adrian and leaves the women in the shadows, nearly faceless. Adrian, in particular, is never fully shown and her voice his muffled.
Secondly, it affect a documentary style, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. To further confuse things, it also features anonymous interviews with other Johns. Are they real or staged? This is never made clear, and we will never know (although Pietrobruno did actually interview clients for this film). The illusion is nearly complete.
What’s interesting (and perhaps even clever) about this approach is that it treats the subject of illusion by creating an illusion too. I’m not sure if the intention was to mirror its subject, and I’m sure that there are ways to break down this dychotomy that is well beyond my grasp, but I find this aspect particularly fascinating. I’d like to read a paper on that.
Completing the picture is the fact that the film also inserts re-enactments of encounters that David has had. As he tells us about his past experiences, we go to some of these re-enactments. What’s great is that we also get behind-the-scenes looks at these staged encounters, as David provides tips to the other performers to help them recreate the scene.
These many layers of illusion makes for quite an intriguing viewing, but also interesting is all the discussion about the purchasing of sex, on why the men do it, …etc. I don’t think there’s anything revelatory here (we’ve heard all the excuses before), but what hit me was that they were seeking the illusion of intimacy here instead of with their partners.
All of the people “interviewed” here are everyday average men who are already in relationships, but are seeking the no-string attentions (romance, flirting, sex) of these women, even if they know it’s not real. David says that “sex for money costs less”, and that it’s “like junk food: it’s probably bad for you but you want it anyway.”
The worst is watching him interact with his partner, Maddy, with whom he’s been in a relationship for two years. She has been aware of his addiction since very early on, and she struggles with his inability to stop. Like many addicts, he stops for a while, only to binge again. Unfortunately, he’s also sometimes irresponsible and does not practice safer sex.
David justifies it to himself by saying that he does “not date sex workers twice out of consideration for (Maddy)”. In his mind, since it’s only sex, he’s being kind by avoiding the emotional trappings of returning to the same worker. Ouch. In fact, many of the men in the picture say that they likely wouldn’t be able to remain faithful to their partners, so buying sex is a good thing.
Personally, I’ve always had an issue with the very notion of paying for sex. That stems from the fact that, to me, sex is closely tied to intimacy; I don’t see sex as just a question of physical pleasure. So paying for the illusion of intimacy never appealed to me. If I want an orgasm, I can very well give myself one. If I want intimacy, I can only find it with another.
But I can’t buy it or fake it.
David somehow can’t tell the difference. He claims to, but he’s an addict and starts to blur the lines between reality and fiction in his own mind. After a while, he starts to believe that Adrian has real feelings for him, and he wants to pursue a relationship with her. And yet he cannot commit to her in any true way; he merely obsesses over her and her attentions.
I found ‘GFE: Girlfriend Experience’ a truly engrossing motion picture, but it was really sad to watch. I understand why people want to legalize prostitution and I’m 100% behind women being able to do what they want with their bodies, but the psychological impact this can have on the people involved makes me wonder just how healthy it is in the end.
Having said that, relationships of all sorts can be messed up and unhealthy, so I’m not really sure what’s best in the end. I wouldn’t choose that route myself, but maybe the illusion that is provided by the Girlfriend Experience is more positive than the alternative for some people. In the end, my only true grievance are the lies and deceit that are involved.
Dishonesty and disrespect can be far more damaging to relationships and the human heart than anything else.
Date of viewing: July 19, 2014