‘The Assistant’: A snapshot of our current conversation around sexual misconduct (the image isn’t pretty)

The Assistant

FilmScene — currently playing

Julia Garner stars as Jane in ‘The Assistant,’ a Bleecker Street release. — Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street

Kitty Green’s The Assistant is currently playing at FilmScene on the Ped Mall for the next two weeks.

Papercuts are not the only wounds that sear in Green’s masterful and mesmerizing feature film The Assistant (2020). Some hurts are untraceable, undetectable on the surface of one’s skin. While the industrial revolution altered the domestic sphere’s technology, the workplace also imported traces of domesticity, like the cleanup (literal and figurative) executed by that of an assistant.

A luminous Julia Garner stars as Jane, the titular assistant, a graduate of Northwestern: smart, capable. She works in the New York office for a formidable Hollywood Producer, one whose face we never see, but whose presence and voice lingers everywhere, like a stain you can’t get rid of.

She’s the first one in the office in the morning and the last one to leave at night. The Assistant is just one day in her life — and its slow, steady pace grips you and doesn’t let go.

Much of the film focuses on the quotidian details of Jane’s office work. There are the innumerable photocopies to be made, the dishes to be washed, the lunch orders to be placed, the travel arrangements to be made. There are also frantic calls from the Producer’s wife demanding to know who he’s with — tense interactions followed by menacing, profanity laden calls from the boss himself, chewing Jane out simply for attempting to placate his spouse.

There are the two men who share Jane’s office who make snide comments about ordering chicken instead of turkey and joke that no one, no one, should ever sit on the couch in the Producer’s office. There are mysterious syringes Jane must throw away. There are stray earrings stuck in the Producer’s office carpet from women Jane has never seen before — and probably never will.

Julia Garner in Kitty Green’s ‘The Assistant.’ — Ty Johnson/Luminary Productions LLC;
courtesy of Bleecker Street

With Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein currently on trial for sexual assault and rape, and the jury in a deadlock on their decision, Green’s film is an urgent, necessary snapshot of male-dominated work environments and gendered abuses of power. Though the film is not inflammatory or sensational in its narrative, Green formally builds tension and unease in her cinematography and framing.

Often Jane is shot in a medium or long shot to plainly show all the dull work she attends to, but sometimes the camera lingers over her shoulder, overhead, too close for comfort. The frame is almost always static, as if intimating the drudgery of a thankless job that Jane is lucky to have but itching to escape. She’s virtually invisible to everyone surrounding her, except when she’s done something wrong.

Julia Garner (left) stars as Jane and Kristine Froseth (right) stars as Sienna in ‘The Assistant,’ a Bleecker Street release. — Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street

What is clear from both Green’s film, as well as the reporting on Weinstein — such as Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said — is that even in instances of one sole person’s physical and verbal abuse of power, there is a whole apparatus at work propping up and enabling that singular perpetrator.

Abuse is systematic because there are people and systems at play to ensure that that abuse continues without a trace. There are more insidious stains than the ones on the couch. Green is daring and artful enough to magnify them in this stunning, flawless film.

5 out of 5 stars.

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