“Working Woman” dramatizes a situation both timely and, alas, timeless.
Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) is the mother of three children and wife to Ofer (Oshri Cohen), who is struggling to manage his new restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel. To earn vital money for the family, Orna takes a job as the assistant to Benny (Menashe Noy), a real estate magnate with a military background who specializes in high-end properties. Despite her newness to the job, she proves highly skilled, and Benny, who first knew Orna when she served in the army, takes a personal interest in her career advancement.
That’s not all he takes a personal interest in. Shortly after Orna is hired he suggests she wear her hair down and wear a skirt, supposedly to impress clients. Not long after, in close quarters, Benny pushes in for a kiss. Orna’s dazed rejection – she points out that she is married, as is he – is met by his profuse apologies and a promise this will not happen again. Of course, we know otherwise.
Movies about beleaguered women in the workplace have generally been spoofs, like “9 to 5,” or feature tyrannical female bosses, like “Working Girl” or “The Devil Wears Prada.” The distinction of “Working Woman” – which was directed by Michal Aviad from a script she co-wrote with Sharon Azulay Eyal and Michal Vinik – is that it doesn’t gussy up, or melodramatize, the story. It’s a steadfast piece of work, shot mostly in long, hand-held takes, and this approach reinforces the inescapability of Orna’s plight. In some ways, “Working Woman” is a species of horror film.
Except that Benny, in a fine performance by Noy, is no two-dimensional Hollywood goblin. If he were, it might be easier to dismiss him as an aberration. It is his very humanness that is his most chilling aspect. Unlike the actions of a cardboard bad guy, Benny’s depredations are not, at least upon a first encounter, easy to predict. One of the more poignant aspects of “Working Woman” is the way Orna, in the early going, attempts to move beyond Benny’s initial come-on and make a career for herself. It is not only that her family really needs the money. We see enough scenes of her with her congenial but not overly empathic husband to realize that she welcomes her job as a breath of fresh air.
Orna’s increasing isolation adds to the film’s ominousness. She chooses not to tell her husband what is going on, and apparently has no friends to confide in. When she lets on about Benny to her mother (Irit Sheleg), the response is disappointing. Orna doesn’t want to see herself as a victim, and yet this is the role in which she is cast. When Ofer finally hears from her about Benny, his first, furious comeback is to ask why she didn’t say something before. It’s a reasonable question but is followed closely by the accusation that she must have wanted things to unfold with Benny the way they did.
I wish Ben-Shlush, who somewhat resembles an Israeli Juliette Binoche, were a bit more expressive in the part. And the film’s narrative is too diagrammatic; all the accusatory pieces fit too neatly into place. Because what came before is so starkly believable, the film’s quick fix denouement diminishes both the severity of what we have been witnessing and what surely must follow.
Still, this is one of the few films about sexual harassment in the workplace that has the feel of authenticity. With quiet, incremental force, it brings home the helplessness and terrors of being trapped. Grade: B+ (Not rated. In Hebrew, French, and English, with subtitles.)