The new TV programme inspired by the Steven Soderbergh film follows other films and TV shows that offer different perspectives on prostitution, writes Keith Uhlich.

They call it ‘the oldest profession’. Certainly in film and television it's one of the oldest plots: prostitution. What is it about the fallen woman – it's almost always a woman – that provides such enduring fascination?

Most Hollywood depictions of prostitutes suggest a mix of the prurient and the puritanical

In fiction, the narrative tends toward the judgmental. Whatever pleasure the prostitute might experience will eventually be supplanted by either the pain of societal condemnation or an ignominious death. There are variations, of course, and it's to the credit of Starz's superb new limited series The Girlfriend Experience ("suggested," as the end credits state, by the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film of the same name) that it keeps viewers continually off-balance as to its overall intentions.

Our protagonist is Chicago law student Christine Reade (Riley Keough), who, over the course of 13 chilly and cerebral 30-minute episodes, makes a name for herself as a high-class call girl while interning at a prestigious law firm. Does the series – co-written and directed by indie film-makers Lodge Kerrigan (Keane) and Amy Seimetz (Sun Don't Shine) – celebrate or castigate its heroine? Or is the project a distancing, clinical dissection of a character who becomes more and more mysterious the longer we spend in her company? 

Perhaps looking at some of Christine's precursors might sharpen the picture. Most Hollywood depictions of prostitutes, from Butterfield 8 to Pretty Woman border on exploitation, with an implicit attitude from the film-makers that suggests a mix of the prurient and the puritanical.

 

Turn first to Lulu (Louise Brooks), the sexually and spiritually uninhibited protagonist of GW Pabst's silent melodrama Pandora's Box (1929). Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, the film follows this alluring demigoddess as she seduces her way through the ranks of German society, until a manslaughter charge sends her plunging into the depths of prostitution.

In contrast to many of the characters who would follow in her footsteps, Lulu's dizzy hedonism is implicitly condemned by the agonies that follow. Much of this has to do with the joie de vivre Brooks, whom Pabst brought over from Hollywood for both this film and the subsequent Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), lends to the role. Yet even still she has a comeuppance: on Christmas Eve, she picks up, charms and is eventually murdered by Jack the Ripper.

Body and soul

The influence of Pandora's Box is more than evident in the great French director Jean-Luc Godard's 1962 masterpiece Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live), though its overall approach is distinctly disaffected. Subtitled A Film in Twelve Tableaux, the movie presents a series of vignettes from the life of acting hopeful-turned-tragic harlot Nana (Anna Karina). Her hair is done up in the same iconic bob as Lulu. (In The Girlfriend Experience series, Christine's friend/colleague Avery, played by Kate Lyn Sheil, wears a similar 'do).

Godard emphasises the emotional toll of the story by shooting the action for maximum alienation: the way he introduces Nana, via a series of extreme close-ups, the music swelling and dropping out at unpredictable moments, sets the tone for what follows. The famous scene in which Nana tears up while watching Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent-film classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), seemingly seeing something of her own struggles in that film's martyred heroine, is unforgettable.

Alan J Pakula's crime thriller Klute (1971) is less about the eponymous detective (Donald Sutherland) investigating the disappearance of an executive than it is about the New York City call girl Bree Daniels (an extraordinary Jane Fonda, winner of the best actress Academy Award for her efforts) who gets caught up in the case. This is the film that is perhaps closest to The Girlfriend Experience in its overall sense of ambiguity. Bree is in many ways a woman liberated. In a key early shot she glances at her watch mid-coitus and it doesn't feel like a shamed expression so much as a comically frustrated one – a working-girl feminist trying to keep to her schedule.

But elsewhere she notes that there's a certain hollowness to her profession; at one point she observes to her psychologist that she wishes she could go back to "just feeling numb". Her romance with Klute complicates and, in true '70s Hollywood fashion – never entirely clarifies these emotions.

The way Gere struts salaciously through the frame in his Armani suits is ne plus ultra wealth porn

Countering the idea that prostitution is a primarily female-centric profession, Paul Schrader's American Gigolo (1980) examines the initially lush and eventually austere lifestyle of Los Angeles male escort Julian Kaye (Richard Gere). His taste for fast cars and other pricey ephemera is only rivaled by his narcissistic ability to pleasure the primarily older women who hire him for his sexual services. But that changes after he meets Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), the unhappy wife of a politician who shows him the possibilities of love and redemption.

Befitting Schrader, this is a strange beast of a film that revels in its very '80s trashiness – the way Gere struts salaciously through the frame in his Armani suits is ne plus ultra wealth porn – until appending a transfigurative climax straight out of Robert Bresson's masterful study of a kleptomaniac, Pickpocket (1959). This is closest to Pandora's Box in the way the character's comeuppance in no way negates the heady vulgarity of what precedes it. Yet Schrader's aesthetic also has some of the same intellectual chill that Godard brings to My Life to Live, and which Kerrigan and Seimetz apply to The Girlfriend Experience in its purgatorial vision of the big-city corporate offices and interchangeable hotel rooms that Christine navigates on her own transformative journey.

Character or caricature?

What of television's portrayal of prostitution? Does it ever go much beyond hookers with hearts of gold? Slimmer pickings, though two  such roles that came immediately to mind (pre-The Girlfriend Experience) are Paula Malcomson's Trixie on the HBO period Western Deadwood and Julia Minesci's Wendy on AMC's crime thriller Breaking Bad.

Trixie is the more potent and poetic of the two, one of the favourite girls at Deadwood's Gem Saloon who quickly establishes herself as an especially complicated character when, in the series' pilot, she chooses not to kill her abusive pimp, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), and instead lie lovingly beside him. She becomes the heart of the series over the course of the show’s three seasons and figures heavily in the series finale when Swearengen must decide whether or not to sacrifice her for the greater good of the South Dakota town.

Breaking Bad's Wendy, by contrast, is initially not much more than a sight gag, though one whose character grows over her three appearances in the series. At first, she's the spaced-out, meth-addicted sex partner of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and is used as a this-could-be-your-life example by DEA Agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) when he cluelessly attempts to caution his nephew about the dangers of drug use. But she takes on new shades in her third and final appearance, during a sex montage scored to The Association's upbeat pop hit Windy. With every customer she encounters she becomes that much more of a tragic figure.

Sex, work and life become completely transactional

And now we have Christine Reade, in many ways an amalgam of all those who came before. What differentiates her, though, is the dissociative personality – in some ways shaped by the cutthroat corporate culture she services in her day job – that she uses as a survival tactic. She's certainly a much more interesting figure than Sasha Grey's Christine from the 2009 Girlfriend Experience, one of Soderbergh's tossed-off experiments that made several flimsy parallels of the call-girl lifestyle with the 2008 economic crisis while trading on its notoriety for starring a former porn actress.

Soderbergh is an executive producer on the new series, and though the clinician's touch he's embraced in his later films is fully evident, the vision is much more Kerrigan and Seimetz's. The pair split directing duties, though there's a nice uniformity of tone – existential and unsentimental, though still involving and often surprisingly moving – that makes the project feel like a six-and-a-half hour movie rather than standard serial television. Kerrigan, in particular, knows this terrain; his 1998 feature, Claire Dolan, was also an analytical portrait of a prostitute played by the late, great Katrin Cartlidge.

Over the course of the 13 episodes, Christine ascends the ladder of her dual professions. She has plenty of stumbles (the Seimetz-directed installment in which her colleagues find out what she's been up to off-hours is especially gut-wrenching). But it's almost impossible to tell, with any definitiveness, if the falls strengthen or weaken her resolve. If anything, she seems to have perfected that "numbness" that Klute's Bree Daniels so desperately wants to maintain. Any judgmental emotions are shed like dead skin, leaving only the voluptuous armour underneath. Sex, work and life become completely transactional, and this allows Christine – as one of the episode descriptions trenchantly synopsises – to be "in complete control".

Without giving anything away, I'll only say that the series builds to a finale that plays very much like a reach-the-summit triumph, even as it simultaneously emphasises, via its vision of pleasure as a purely solitary pursuit, that it's lonely on top.

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