girlfriend experience



Filed under: girlfriend experience — pietrobruno @ 14:04

Directing so-called sex scenes (in which there is a simulation of physical intimacy) is always tricky. Cast and crew tend to get awkward and stiff around nudity and physical contact.

I think executing a sex scene requires a lot of communication. I always decide with the actors what exactly the actions are going to be. I also make sure that the actors know that their boundaries will be fully respected. On this shoot, I made a deal with the actors that they were free to change their mind at anytime, even if we were halfway through their scene. In other words, they were at liberty to renege on a shoot mid-way, causing us to lose a full day’s work. Fortunately, this never happened but perhaps the actors’ affirmed autonomy made them much more relaxed.

What’s interesting about the representation of intimacy in Girlfriend Experience is that it has a tone of criminality. One reason for this is that the viewer brings so many personal and cultural biases to the depiction of paid sex. Simply portraying a john elicits a feeling of tension in the viewer. Daniel’s intimacy with sex workers is layered with the viewer’s perceptions of power and exploitation.

The other reason for this tone of criminality stems from Girlfriend Experience’s shooting style which is very voyeuristic. The camera peers through obstructions trying to see the action, like a voyeur who watches illicitly from a hidden place. There’s an insidious feeling of guilt, shame, and complicity. When the cop yells at the camera to shut-off, it is as if the camera has been caught or censored. Just as Daniel is criminalized for what he does, so too is the camera.

(Excerpt from Toro Magazine interview)

GFE still_3 of 5



  1. I recently viewed *The* GFE by Soderbergh, and stumbled on this film, *GFE*, with a confusingly similar title. Although I have not yet seen GFE, this film seems far more interesting! I was honestly taken aback by many of the comments in the director’s interview with TORO Magazine. The level of insight and articulation is not one I have ever seen before on this subject, which is one that has been approached many, many times in film, and no doubt will be appraoched many more. This is a breakthrough.

    I felt compelled to make a few comments on her comments. I guess I’m just hoping to hear more from this director, as she has an refreshing and uncommon clarity of thought on a usually polarising subject.

    Q: As you did some interviews with sex-trade clients, what did you
    discover the men were saying that informed your film?
    A: What struck me more than the details of their stories is what regular
    guys they are. Sure, some of them are super kinky, but still, they’re just
    regular guys – dads, husbands, brothers, boyfriends, buddies, sons. Very
    nice guys. Because I did not want to vilify or stereotype the client, I
    decided that in both the writing and dramatization of Girlfriend
    Experience, the client had to be “the guy next door”. Daniel (played by
    David Lewis) is good-looking, white, middle-class (in a lousy low-wage
    job), and he’s in love with his girlfriend. Daniel is a generic guy,
    somewhat bland, who just happens to be obsessed with prostitutes.

    The john is typically characterized as a sinister shadow lurking in the
    alleyways and underbelly of the city. In Girlfriend Experience the john is
    shot with reflections of the city to emphasize that he is right here in
    the centre of the city, everywhere and everyman. The john is the city.

    Conducting the research interviews, I was surprised to learn about the
    “girlfriend experience.” GFE is a service that offers deep French kissing,
    bareback blow jobs and full sex; in other words, closeness and intimacy.
    It’s not so much the sex men are after, as the feeling of being with a
    girlfriend. Men are hungry for a sexual encounter that feels comfortable,
    unrushed, friendly, warm, connected, intimate, and most importantly, real
    – like she’s your girlfriend and you’re her boyfriend. A GFE date must not
    feel like a paid session. It has to feel like she is really into it. That
    she likes you, genuinely likes you.

    My comment: As a commenter on the interview pointed out, the acronym “GFE” describes a type of encounter that resembles the sex one has with their girlfriend. Initially, it was used by johns to describe these sort of encounters, which inevitably happen from time to time, for various reasons. I imagine this has been going on since the time prostitution began, recaling the many stories of “courtesans” throughout history. Of course there are strong stereotypes to the contrary, of cold and detached people, drugs, poor hygiene, etc. In any event, with the arrival of the internet, as these encounter are indeed sought after by many johns, and as the term GFE was used among them on public forums, prostitutes and their employers took note, and the term is now used in marketing. What occurs between john and prostitute is not always as scripted as one might imagine. Rigid steretypes can give way to genuine more fluid human interaction. It sounds like this film takes a close introspective look at this very old, but misunderstood phenomenon.

    GFE surprised me. If I were purchasing sex, I would not be paying for
    cuddles and soft kisses; I’d be paying for new physical experiences,
    without emotional intimacy. I had not expected Girlfriend Experience to be
    an investigation of the fantasy of love, but as this emotion was so
    prevalent in my research, it became an important part of the film.

    My comment: This is interesting. It is as if we prefer to agree to behave in a manner that we do not normally behave in during our sexual experiences, whether that is to be more “attached” or to be more “detached” emotionally. The payment signifies an agreement between the parties to honour the chosen roles. The direction or amount of payment, as is often our focus, may not be as significant as the peculiar decision to enter the agreement and to take on otherwise unlikely roles and engage a fantasy with a stranger.

    Q: How do you think you’re approaching the GFE fantasy in your film?
    A: I am interpreting the GFE as being about the quest for realness and
    authenticity. Why does Daniel pay for sex when he can get it for free?
    Subconsciously, Daniel feels that prostitutes are more real than
    non-professional women. When he can make the prostitute Adrian orgasm he
    knows, not simply that she likes him more than all the other men she’s
    slept with, but more importantly, that he has broken through the facade of
    the whore to the real woman.

    My comment: Despite the very personal feelings associated with it, I view an orgasm as a general function of biology, not an individual conscious choice. In that sense it is “real” regardless of the “facades” we may perceive or put up. Orgasm may be taken to symbolise various things to different people, and we have the choice of how to intepret its presence or absence, and what we choose to have it symbolise, irrespective of biology.

    Q: How do you see your character Daniel and the compulsiveness of his
    A: Because a dramatic story needs conflict, tension and things that go
    wrong, I scripted problems into the main character’s enjoyment of
    prostitution. For the sake of telling a story, I had to have Daniel
    encounter obstacles in his pursuit of the GFE. I believe that in reality
    most men find that prostitution works very well for them.

    My comment: This is a very insightful observation. Could it be possible that we need these things in not only in stories, but also, perhaps metaphorically, in relationships, in order for the relationships to be “normal”? Do we have scripts that we follow in life? Are there common themes that we choose to play out?

    Daniel’s compulsiveness or obsession with prostitution is not simply
    motivated by the fact that he can’t get what he wants. It’s also because
    sex itself isn’t actually about sex at all. Daniel thinks that all he’s
    searching for is a good fuck – but what’s a good fuck?

    My answer: A connection, on an unconscious level, be it animal, spiritual, or some combination of the two. And this I believe is mostly out of our control, in the realm of biology. Some people fit well together, as if Nature intended it to be so. As with sex outside of prostitution, we cannot consciously choose with whom this will occur, we can only hope that we meet them. We are only left to consider and make meaning out of it ex post facto.

    What is sex? People think I’m an idiot when I ask this question, but
    really, what is sex? I don’t think that it’s about penetration or any
    specific physical act. To me, sex is about illusion and fantasy.

    My comment: In other words, the psychological stimulation from the thought of certain physical acts takes precedence over the physical stimulation itself.

    In this consumerist age, we all experience and understand this kind of
    obsession. Our addictions come in a variety of forms and intensities.
    Searching externally for an internal sense of well-being is what our
    consumer culture is all about. For Daniel, having lots of sex with lots of
    different women makes him feel alive. Without it he would be a useless
    shell of a man. As he says, “It’s only sex, but it’s the most important
    thing in a guy’s life.”

    My comment: It is feeding the animal side of ourselves. It is like someone who loves food. A basic need is transformed into an indulgence.

    Q: Daniel has early lines in the film saying he likes prostitution because
    there’s no games. Yet the dynamics of his GFE seem just as complicated and
    complicating to his girlfriend Maddy. Have you thought of how how
    so-called GFE processes differ from more conventional relationships?
    A: Purchasing a half-hour or one-hour girlfriend experience session is
    completely different from having an actual, everyday girlfriend. That’s
    obvious. A GFE session is a circumscribed scene in which the participants
    are actors playing the roles of girlfriend and boyfriend. By participating
    in prostitution, Daniel can star in his own movie with a script that he’s
    written. The film’s use of re-enactments dramatizes the idea that what we
    are watching is his fantasy, his perspective.

    A GFE session is uncomplicated. When the GFE date is over, Daniel says, “I
    leave the theatre both physically and emotionally.” But later on, Daniel
    decides to step right into the fantasy and that’s when things get
    complicated for him. He wants to be inside the fantasy because it makes
    Adrian’s kisses that much sweeter.

    When Daniel steps into the fantasy, he soon finds himself paying for
    nothing. He is quite literally paying to masturbate. Does he get nothing
    in return because Adrian is a fantasy who does not exist? Does he get
    nothing in return because his desire depends on never being satisfied? Is
    paying to jerk off to a fantasy and never being satisfied a graphic
    metaphor for prostitution?

    My comment: The only thing I would add here is that the physical responses, if there are any, e.g. orgasm, are not fantasy. It is perhaps how the overall “relationship” (encounter) is interpreted by the participants that is fantasy, i.e. not truly rpresentational of what is happening. John and prostitute have volutarily subtracted something from the relationship aspect, they have via payment agreed to keep it out, and indeed neither is ever made whole while this thing is missing. Nature provides the possibilty for the unconscious physical responses, but it also mandates more, and the participants here are consciously attempting to control for that. The fact that we would still decide to participate in this fatalistic plot is a testament to the power and joy of engaging the human imagination.

    Q: You spoke to some johns about their experience. Did you choreograph
    Daniel’s sexualized re-enactments from what you’ve heard?
    A: I wrote all the lines and all the scenes. The film is all scripted.
    Nothing is improvised. It’s a testament to David Lewis’s talent and skill
    as an actor that viewers often believe that the character Daniel is
    actually a john who is simply ad libbing lines. He’s not. David Lewis’s
    lines are scripted, rehearsed and memorized.

    So the answer to your question is no. I did not choreograph re-enactments
    based on what I heard. The interviews that I conducted inspired my writing
    but everything is made up. David Lewis’s naturalistic acting and John
    Houtman’s exquisitely “accidental and spontaneous” cinematography both
    work to dupe the audience into believing that there’s something real going
    on here. There isn’t. It’s a movie, very manipulated and worked over.

    Adrian/Nana isn’t a sex worker: she is a cultural artifact or symbol.

    Q: Did you also speak to sex workers about GFE fantasy, whether their
    understanding of this differs?
    A: I have acquaintances who work in the sex industry. (And I must point
    out that they are all very accomplished, educated and intelligent women
    who make this profession work for them.) But no, I did not talk to them
    about this project because I tend to keep my filmmaking separate from my
    friendships, and also because I felt that I did not need or want their
    input as sex workers. First off, because the film is not about sex
    workers. But more importantly, the way I see it, all women are whores,
    myself included. It’s not hard for me to imagine what it’s like to
    manipulate a man into believing that I find him attractive and interesting
    ’cause like, uh, duh – isn’t this what we women do all the time? It’s
    called survival.

    My comment: It takes a certain amount of maturity to see past these labels and look plainly at our behaviours. I have heard others state something similar to what is being said here, but not as maturely as you have done. There is no hint of spite. Men and women depend on each other. Anything beyond this, e.g. concepts of “whore” or “manipulation”, is an intepretation and highly subjective.

    Q: What do you think of the sense of erotic illusion in the narrative? The
    perception that sex work commonly involves deception?
    A: The GFE service’s mutually agreed upon deception intrigues me. The
    client knowingly and willingly pays to be duped into believing that the
    sex worker is turned on. In spite of being fully aware that the sex
    worker’s orgasms are fake, most johns fully enjoy their erotic encounter.
    Some johns delude themselves into believing that the sex worker’s orgasms
    are real. In both cases, the client is paying the sex worker to be a very
    good actress.

    My comment: The orgasms may or may not be fake, regardless of the expected or agreed on characteristics of the encounter. Few people, if any, can consciously control orgasm, under *all* circumstances. That said, I would expect the majority of johns do not trigger orgasms in their partners and frequently engage in some self-delusion.

    Daniel sees GFE as a consensual illusion. He believes that prostitution is
    more honest than going on a regular date, because with a sex worker the
    terms of the interaction are discussed openly and he doesn’t have to
    manipulate her with courtship games or false intentions just to get her in
    bed. Daniel isn’t ashamed of what he does because it’s honest. That’s why
    he’s not in the closet.

    My comment: This I believe is an interesting aspect of male psychology. Perhaps, in the same way that many women would not be apt to call themselves “whores”, many men seek to avoid acknowledging that they too engage in conscious manipulation. And they will use self-delusion to avoid this realisation if necessary.

    Q: Was it interesting to conceive of a male character’s motivation to
    experience physical variety – that he wants girls on the side, even as he
    has an attractive girlfriend?
    A: Paid sex doesn’t threaten Daniel’s relationship with Maddy in the way
    that an affair could. The boundaries of paid sex are clear: once the date
    is over, it’s over. Emotions are kept in check. For this reason,
    prostitution does not threaten monogamy. It could even be argued that
    prostitution protects marriages from breaking apart.

    Daniel needs to have lots of sex with lots of different women in order to
    feel like a man and prostitution affords him this opportunity. The world
    of prostitution also bonds him with other men. He likes to imagine that
    his sexuality is as base, simple, uncomplicated and cliche as any other
    regular guy. By participating in prostitution, Daniel constructs his idea
    of what it is to be a man.

    My comment: Spot on. Unnervingly accurate. He imagines it, but he knows it’s not true.

    Q: I don’t think the film moralizes Daniel’s process, yet how do you see
    this drive in the character – how some men are eroticizing themselves in
    this way?

    A: Daniel is a character that I created, therefore, he is me. I want the
    audience to understand him and sympathize with him. One audience member,
    surprised to learn that I am the writer and director, said, “But it feels
    like a guy made it.” That is the ultimate compliment because it is the
    entire point of the film. Girlfriend Experience is about the client’s
    point of view.

    My comment: Wow. How many writers, or actors, have the raw honesty to admit that the characters they illuminate are indeed part of themselves. We could not place ourselves in the shoes of these characters if they did not represent some part of us. And even as viewers, with any film, I believe this is what we do, placing ourselves in the character’s shoes, as we try to identify with the character. We lose ourselves for an hour or two in a fantasy, whether we are conscisouly aware of this or not. It is an unconscious human drive toward empathy.

    Q: How do you think working on this project and with GFE concepts has
    affected your generalized sense of sexuality and relations?
    A: Having put myself inside Daniel’s head for so long, I’ve come to see
    that prostitution betrays a profound weakness in men: a vulnerability, an
    insatiable need to step out of boring mundane reality, a yearning to feel
    alive, a fear of aging and dying, a desire to connect. All the things that
    make us human and very interesting. Yeah, I don’t quite know why but now
    that I’ve made this film, I like men a lot more.

    My comment: This is my favourite of the answers. Not because of a professed empathy with men, but because, to me, what is suggested, implicitly, is that men and women have a lot in common. I read this as implying that, on some important levels, we are not so different as culture teaches us to believe.

    Comment by Geno — 17/07/2009 @ 14:31

  2. Hello Geno,
    I find all your comments very interesting, engaging and profound. It’s great to hear from you. Thank-you for your extensive commentary.

    Comment by pietrobruno — 22/07/2009 @ 10:09

    • PS. Geno, I really like what you have to say about orgasms.

      Comment by pietrobruno — 22/07/2009 @ 10:14

    • Geno said: “The fact that we would still decide to participate in this fatalistic plot is a testament to the power and joy of engaging the human imagination.

      Brilliant insight!

      Comment by pietrobruno — 22/07/2009 @ 10:22

  3. Great to see you respond.

    The brilliant insights are yours. The very idea of your film, the perspsective it takes, is ahead of its time.

    I’ve never offered up my ideas about orgasm before, as I think it’s a very personal issue for women. Thanks for the compliments. I figured my job is to just give them, not to try to explain them (I only wish I could).

    The ideas I have are influenced by my limited knowledge of biology on molecular and cellular levels and my strong personal belief in the “unconscious” aspects of life, mixed with the usual dose of real world experiences.

    “How” orgasms happen is a question I think we can go quite far in answering; we’re always experimenting; our personal knowledge of our bodies and our general knowledge of human physiology is always increasing.

    But as for “why” orgasms happen (e.g. their purpose, if any), I believe that is still one of life’s mysteries. Theories abound, but there’s little experimental evidence to support the consclusions that I’ve seen. And so viewing orgasm as a symbol, attempting to make meaning out of the fact of orgasm (presence/absence), could be much more difficult.

    Comment by Geno — 25/07/2009 @ 16:09

  4. Hi,

    Could someone please tell me if this is a movie I can watch with my wife or is that going to create a problem? I am sure when i watch it i will put myself in the Johns (character’s) i dont know how my wife might take this…we are already having some issues about other girls and and how i see them..

    Comment by victor — 16/08/2009 @ 19:09

    • I must start by saying that I hate to generalize based on gender (or any other box). I believe we are each individuals with individual film tastes.

      That said … I have noticed that men tend to understand this film better than women. There’s also an underlying humourous tone in Girlfriend Experience that men are more receptive to than women. (This is not a funny film, at all. To the contrary. But there’s a humourous tone that some men respond to).

      My feeling is that you would be a lot more comfortable watching this film by yourself or with another guy.

      No-one wants to be critiqued, judged or put-down for their enjoyment of a film. It’s only a film!

      (By the way, I often watch horror films and artsy films alone, ‘cause I know my friends won’t appreciate it with the same rapturous pleasure that I do.)

      Comment by pietrobruno — 16/08/2009 @ 23:04

  5. Hi Ileana,
    I saw this film at the Cinemateque on Thursday, and appreciated you coming for the Q&A. I enjoyed the movie, and especially that you filmed it in Vancouver. Someone in the audience pointed out that prostitution is not illegal in Vancouver, and I was surprised that you didn’t know this. You said the john is a criminal, and you must have shot the entire film with this point of view, which is inaccurate. I wonder what you might have done differently had you not had the perspective that the main character was a criminal.
    Also, I would like to bring into the dialogue the fact that GFE means different things to different people. To some women I’ve spoken to who work in several Vancouver massage parlours, it has the specific meaning of allowing the client to perform oral sex. To others I have spoken to it simply means being friendly to the client. So it doesn’t necessarily mean what you have defined it as: “GFE is a service that offers deep French kissing, bareback blow jobs and full sex; in other words, closeness and intimacy.” It can be GFE with no french kissing, or GFE with condoms and latex dental dams. I think the latter part of your definition is accurate, though, and probably the most relevant point: the client wants to feel like there is genuine closeness.
    Anyway, I learned a lot from the movie, and appreciate your work!
    Kind regards,

    Comment by Karen — 08/09/2009 @ 04:22

  6. Hello Karen,
    Glad you enjoyed the film and thank-you for commenting! The issue of prostitution’s legality in Canada still confuses me. Technically, it is legal but communicating for the purposes of paid-sex is illegal. I find this very confusing ’cause how is one supposed to participate in prostitution without communicating! (There’s also lots of distinctions made between in-call and out-call etc …).

    What I wish I had said at the screening is that society’s attitude (i.e., the law’s) towards prostitution is largely class-based. When the middle and upper class do it, it’s okay. But the low-class client and sex-worker is heavily vilified and criminalized by society and the law. When the client and sex-worker is poor, the law and the media clamp-down hard.

    Also, this is just a detail but, I was surprised to discover in my research that one’s car is not a private space; unless you’re inside your own private garage, the interior of your car is a public space.

    At any rate, with or without the legal clauses and sub-clauses, we all know that society criminalizes the john. Like, duh. (In North America the prevailing idea is that a man is a loser – less than a man – if he has to pay for sex. In Europe the attitude is that a man is more of man when he purchases sex. It is a man’s prerogative and something that he should take advantage of, and learn from).

    Regarding what is GFE: it’s an endless discussion that goes round and round! There’s thousands of men and women discussing this right now on the hundreds of chats and forums that exist on this topic. However, what interests me is how the simple physical concrete reality of something can have large philosophical / ideological implications. I am interested in the way the concrete (i.e., a bareback blowjob) has meaning / emotions/ poetry & beauty.

    Karen, thank-you again for commenting. It’s great to hear from you!

    Comment by pietrobruno — 08/09/2009 @ 07:21

  7. This film was beautifully done

    I admit, I was absolutely shocked that you are a woman.
    But after the shock wore off, it kind of gave me some hope about humanity; because through research and introspection, you’ve managed to understand why men go to visit prostitutes better than most men do.

    I am a former “John” so I should know.

    If more people went out of their way to understand experience unfamiliar to them this world would be a much better place.

    Great Interview and best of luck in your film career!

    Comment by JW — 06/11/2009 @ 11:52

    • Hello JW,
      I’m very flattered that you were “absolutely shocked” to discover that I’m a woman. Thank-you for the compliment! You know, JW, I made this film for you – for clients, or former clients, or those wishing to become clients. So, I am truly relieved that the film made sense to you. Thank-you so much for commenting.
      Take care,

      Comment by pietrobruno — 06/11/2009 @ 13:55

  8. I enjoyed this movie! I commend highly the editing and photography. David Lewis acted superbly, as did Tara Frederick. A very thought provoking film.

    Comment by Rick Umali — 28/11/2009 @ 18:55

    • Hello Rick Umali,
      Thanks so much for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed Girlfriend Experience. And yes, David Lewis and Tara Frederick are super talented. It was a blast working with them.

      Comment by pietrobruno — 28/11/2009 @ 19:15

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