Film Review: Working Woman (2018), dir. Michal Aviad
Israeli director Michal Aviad an unabashedly feminist filmmaker has made a very thoughtful and timely film. All of her work is from the woman’s point of view and she has tackled some difficult aspects of the female experience. Most of her previous work was documentary and included subjects like women in the military and their responses to violence against others as well as against themselves, female genital mutilation among young African women and girls, and victims of rape.
The subject of this film, sexual harassment in the workplace, while less sensational, and often less violent, is perhaps more insidious since it can be remarkably vague. For years it has been commonplace and somewhat institutionalized in our culture of male-dominated work environments. Unlike rape, sexual harassment is more subtle and non-specific. It usually evolves gradually and involves power plays, domination, coercion, manipulation, and gaslighting. In general, there is a very unequal playing field. The the abuser usually holds all or most of the cards. It is also not a crime, leaving victims relatively unprotected. As the #MeToo movement has shined much needed light on the prevalence of these conditions, it will be quite some time before our culture adjusts to treat this behavior seriously and fairly. We’ve got a long way to go.
Our protagonist, Orna (Liron Ben Shlush), is a young mother of three young children living in a small apartment with her husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen). They have some serious financial challenges as Ofer is trying to get his new restaurant off the ground while facing serious obstacles with permits and financing. They appear to be a normal happy, upwardly mobile family living in Israel. When Orna decides to go back to work, she lands a potentially lucrative job with a real estate developer who is working on an ambitious high-end luxury condominium. Her new employer is someone she knew from her military service. Although she has no experience in real estate, she discovers that she has a real aptitude for the job. She is appealing and intuitive and grasps the nuances of the business. She gets along with her clients and colleagues.
As Orna proves herself to be quite good at her job and her boss, Benny (Menashe Noy), gives her more responsibility, which she eagerly embraces, but which involves Benny becoming more dependent upon her and calling her at home at all hours which is becoming intrusive. The more she excels at her job the more contact with Benny she has. He begins to treat her as a more equal colleague, which also includes more proximity. The first time he tries to kiss her, she rebuffs him and makes it abundantly clear that this will not be tolerated. He appears to have received the message and gives a convincing promise that it will not happen again. Orna grapples with the question of whether or not to let it slide or to believe him. She agonizes over this but decides that the financial benefits outweigh the discomfort. The business’s success is intoxicating and Benny promises Orna a percentage of sales and a raise in salary.
Soon it becomes clear that Benny is obsessed with Orna, and is unable to keep his intentions in check. There are small incidents which do not cross a line, but signify a breakdown in the trust which Orna so desperately wants to believe. She tries to keep her distance and avoid awkwardness but Benny is becoming creepily predatory. Orna’s turmoil is internalized, but in private, we can see it in her small actions and nervous behavior. Her struggle is intensely convincing and painful to watch as she tries to process what is happening to her. Liron, who reminds me of a young Geraldine Chaplin, is mesmerizing to watch and she registers emotions with great subtlety and a convincing naturalism. She is terrific. Also enhancing our experience of Orna’s point of view is the camera’s position which very often hovers behind Orna’s long graceful neck.It feels as if we are seeing through her eyes. It is very effective.
My only quibble with this extremely well-made film is the outcome. When the inevitable line is crossed, Orna does the best that she can in a terrible situation. Although she gets out at the earliest opportunity available. She escapes intact, her self-esteem is in ruins along with her clothes. When she finally breaks down and tells her husband, she seems unable to explain it in a way which will elicit his support. Instead, he turns away from her. Tellingly, when she tries to open up to her mother, her mother assumes the worst and exonerates her anyway, making her almost complicit in accepting that this is the price of being a woman in the workplace. Shocking, I thought.
When Orna, in defiantly, confronts Benny for a recommendation, it is the result of intense re-programming of her shattered confidence. This is process is heartbreakingly rendered. As a result she shows some powerful resolve to get what she needs and demands. But, to my mind, it is not enough. It is the most minimal victory for her. She does not demand the money that he owes her. She passes up the chance to expose his behavior to his wife and their colleagues. In short, she even protects him in spite of the trauma and damage that he has caused her. I was actually furious. But maybe that was the point. There is nothing in this film which feels false or exaggerated. It is all totally believable. This is the way it goes in too many cases. The victim pays the price for the offense. So maddening. I’ll say it again. We’ve got a long way to go. But this is one step forward.
You can watch a trailer for the film here