Green’s world | Daily News

Green’s world

In The Assistant, a film about harassment in the office, the anger is as repressed as what the characters, and the audience, are supposed to be angry about. Though its director Kitty Green has denied that it’s a #MeToo flick, the story makes it clear what it’s about and where it’s set. Seeing it, you are reminded of how much of a Stanley Kramer film last year’s Bomshell was: with its less than nuanced dramatic flourishes, its explosive, bombastic dialogues and fourth wall breakers, Bombshell belonged to Hollywood’s facile liberal tradition, the kind that tends to gloss over the details, that sacrifices the subtle for the obvious.

The Assistant resists this easy way out. The result is that, unlike in Bombshell, where we had to trudge through multiple storylines and weren’t always sure which character we had to root for or hold against, here we identify at once with the protagonist. Jane, not so much a hero as she is an everyman, or everywoman, begins the day, literally, at the office: as her HR officer reminds her, she’s the first one in and the last one out. The office she works at happens to be a movie mogul’s bureau, and she’s tasked with answering calls, handling appointments, and, more often than not, listening to her boss abusing her over the phone. The latter happens just twice in the whole story, but then the “whole story” unfolds within the course of a day: when we hear the boss berating her twice, we realise it’s too times too many.

Excoriated in filth

The plot works through a series of micro-aggressions: the kind you experience at any office, the kind a woman will usually experience on a much bigger scale than her male co-workers. Jane, whose surname the film is never mentioned (she may be a Jane Doe), endures one mini-quagmire after another: when the boss’s wife calls her and shouts at her, demanding that she be connected to her husband, and Jane talks her down, only to be called seconds later and be excoriated by the boss in filth, we realise that we’re seeing a microcosm of what most women go through every day, every hour. The story convinces us because it doesn’t turn Jane into a supersized heroine: it tells us, frankly and openly, that given the circumstances she’s in – she wants to progress in her career – she’s probably doomed to never “come out.” If you wonder why she doesn’t come out, why she doesn’t reveal what’s happening in her workplace, well, consider that it took over two decades for #MeToo revelations about Harvey Weinstein – the model for the movie producer in the film – to surface.

What’s more interesting about The Assistant is that it hardly bats an eyelid: the director makes us think we’re going through several days, when in fact it’s about 12 hours. Timing is of the essence here: though the story cuts from scene to scene, from line to line, from detour to detour, it holds on to a specific timeframe. This convinces us, not just because it’s literally a “splice of life” – not just because it depicts how abuse and aggression unfold in real time – but because we identify with it. On the level of a microcosm, The Assistant works in ways no other #MeToo themed movie does: while most other such movies unfold in weeks, years, and decades, Kitty Green’s narrative works through seconds, minutes, and hours.

The result is that, unless we concentrate on the story, we can miss the plot. Consider the scene where we see a production team make their way to the mogul’s office. It doesn’t add much to the story: the camera focuses on Jane, and we don’t see the producers’ faces. But then rewind back to that scene and listen to what they’re saying: one of them, clad in a blue shirt, is speaking in the voice that berated and abused Jane over the phone. You realise, when you make the connection, that this is the boss, and that he emerges in another scene. In a film about sexual harassment and verbal abuse, we never get to see the abuser and harasser in full detail: he’s always a blur, a momentary character, who exists through what he says, where he goes (and he goes here and there a lot in the story), and, if you watch through the movie well, what he orders. There’s a scene involving syringes and medicines; suffice it to say that if you look hard at the package, you’ll understand why he ordered them.

Career aspirations

The last 15 minutes are powerful, because they hold back what in another movie would have gushed out. It’s the only point where Jane loses her temper: though she barks momentarily at a colleague, it’s clear the strain is beginning to show. Placid as she is, however, she reins in on her anger and moves on. She comes across a video of one of the many women her boss is wooing. The movie never makes it clear whether he was, in fact, zeroing in on these women, making use of their career aspirations. But the evidence is clear. Jane unearths what she can, but those waiting for a big reveal, a bombshell, will be disappointed, even if not surprised: in the real world, unless you’re rich and powerful, coming out with such horror stories can only harm reputations. The moral is not so much that these incidents happen as they will continue to happen, unless the powerful empower those who want to come out.

The ultimate triumph of The Assistant – a triumph it shares even with the much (over)hyped Bombshell, which was set in Fox News – is that it digs deep with the details. There’s really no stone left unturned, no bridge uncrossed, here. What’s remarkable about this is that unlike Jay Roach, who directed Bombshell, Kitty Green did not have the luxury of time or money in The Assistant. Yet it’s clear she’d one her research well; as she noted in several interviews, it wasn’t an easy task to go to actual movie studio offices and interview those who had actually undergone abuse and harassment from their (mostly male) bosses, but she did all she could all the same. The result: from how colleagues make eye contact in the lift to how the HR officer throws the ball back to Jane, the film becomes a “slice of life.”

Kitty Green hasn’t directed a lot: she has four documentaries to her name before this one. Born in Australia, she studied at the Victorial College of the Arts. The three documentaries are remarkable in that she approaches their subject-matter from novel perspectives: in Casting JonBenét, for instance, rather than investigating the murder case at the heart of the story, she films the “casting process” for the documentary, the actors who are to be fitted into the roles of the real-life personalities involved in the case. In The Assistant, her first feature flick, she makes use of these perspectives. The result is not so much a feast for the eyes as it is a reality check for the soul: it’s an underrated masterwork, and it should be recognised as such.

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