Friday 1 May 2020

Trial: "The Assistant"

Kitty Green's The Assistant will doubtless be claimed as the first properly post-Weinsteinian film, in that it amplifies some of the cries and whispers heard in the run-up to and during the disgraced Miramax chief's recent trial. Yet as a film, it's far subtler and stealthier than that significance-bestowing pullquote would indicate, working - and damning - by implication alone. Quietly, naturistically, Green introduces us to Jane (Julia Garner), the most attentive of several junior staffers whose desks sit outside the office of an intemperate film industry figure. This gatekeeping position affords her an access and knowledge beyond most. She's among the first to hear the tantrums and hissy fits thrown behind closed doors; while tidying the boss's office, she turns up discarded earrings and syringes. Equally, though, the gig opens this young woman up to an uncommon level of stress. She knows she has to do what she does just so, because she's heard the consequences that come with getting it wrong; she's the first person her unseen employer calls to harangue if anything does go awry. The film's tight focus - never leaving this petite figure's side as she manoeuvres around company HQ - is specifically attuned to what this young woman has to absorb and internalise in the course of her daily duties. Its most damning aspect - what's likely to strike viewers who've never seen a Miramax production in their life - is that The Assistant doesn't need the film-biz trappings: the scripts, the production schedules, the passing starlets. This could be any workplace, if things got bad enough.

What Green's film chimes with, then, isn't The Devil Wears Prada or The Intern (movies that cooed: how great it is to be a young woman getting ahead in your chosen field), rather a run of varied new TV shows - as diverse in their methods as Devs, Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet and Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist - which have arrived at the male-dominated workspace as a site of concern, tension and possible trauma. Green quickly establishes that the mundane Monday shift we're watching may be the one that determines whether Jane becomes a victim or a whistleblower, yet even that threatens to make The Assistant seem more of a conventional thriller than the experiential undertaking that plays out before us. In terms of overt action, there is as little as there is in most offices up and down the land. What we're mostly privy to is the menial work such a position requires: the photocopying and mailsorting, some momentary childcare, as a PA breezes in and sticks her with Their Master's kids, the printing out of headshots. (This is unmistakably a rare American film that bears the influence of Chantal Akerman's feminist landmark Jeanne Dielman...) Yet the subtext of each scene, every task, is overwhelming - we infer what Jane infers, and then have to carry that knowledge into the next fraught interaction. (Those headshots, by the way, are exclusively of twentysomething women.) This isn't a job, we understand, so much as a terrible burden for any conscientious person to have to bear.

In presenting its evidence - or, more specifically, situating it just to the left or right of frame, thereby obliging the engaged viewer to take the next step - The Assistant shapes up as by far the most formally interesting American release so far this year (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the most European-seeming American release since the heyday of the Sean Durkin group that gave us 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which Garner appeared). It works by a combination of Green's unblinking focus and a sparse, well-organised mise en scène (special shoutout to the company's poster art, immediately redolent of a recognisable variety of tasteful American indie, hung to conceal all manner of non-fictional sins) that allows this camera to drill through this office's closed doors and unsoundproofed walls to spy what's really going on here. 

That the film isn't quite as alienatingly chilly as certain films by Michael Haneke or his acolytes may well be attributable to the excellent Garner, a survivor of TV's Waco and Ozark. She gives us someone intuitive enough to have figured out how this system operates and the extent to which she's facilitating it, and who seems with every grim chore to be weighing up what, if anything, she can do to correct it. Yet Green never for a moment lets us forget what this one woman is up against. As if the condescending looks of the company higher-ups weren't enough to crush the spirit, she writes a painfully brilliant scene in which Jane arrives in the office of a blithe HR suit (Matthew McFadyen) and realises, mid-conversation, that they're coming at an unspoken topic from very different standpoints; worse still, that just in raising the subject, she's effectively placing herself under suspicion. (The scene concludes with the ghastliest of punchlines: the stomach lurches, and the heart sinks.) 

As Jane tentatively feels her way down these corridors looking for an exit strategy, it struck me that The Assistant's Europeanness may owe less to Haneke or Akerman than it does to Kafka - and there is something faintly absurd in the idea of a woman in an abusive relationship with someone who isn't even in the room. (As in any two-bit horror movie, you may start to question why our heroine doesn't just flee - even louder when the office starts to empty out at night, leaving only Him and her.) As recent events have underlined, however, that absence doesn't mean a threatening presence can't be felt, and Green's particularly acute use of offscreen space and sound - the ominous aircon hum that signals an industry functioning as usual, the distant thuds of power being wielded and abused - ensure we feel it, too. Weinstein is in the mix somewhere, certainly. But how many other horrible bosses remain out there, operating beyond oversight, yet to be named and shamed, still wreaking this kind of havoc?

The Assistant is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.

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