A typical skeptic’s response to the #MeToo movement has been “Well, why didn’t she just get another job? Why would anyone keep working with a boss who behaves inappropriately?” This argument tends to overlook the fact that many women — and people in general — don’t have infinite employment options, bridge-burning may be seriously detrimental to their careers and many have to put up with “a certain amount” of crap to get ahead at all. The person who believes there’s never any excuse for putting up with harassment has probably never experienced any, let alone risked losing an advantageous position or salary if they complain.
That’s the fix the heroine of “Working Woman” finds herself in: She’s wedged between need for a job that greatly improves her young family’s prospects and the increasingly discomfiting behavior of her superior. This second narrative feature by Israeli documentarian Michal Aviad is a strong drama that eschews melodramatic contrivance, making its points via cool (yet sometimes squirm-inducing) observation. As an accessible illustration of a hot-button issue, it snagged U.S. sales to Zeitgeist and Kino Lorber during the Toronto film fest, makes its Asian premiere in Busan, and should attract similar interest in other territories.
At the start, 30-ish Orna (Liron Ben Shlush of “Next to Her”) is excited about making a significant career change as assistant to major-league Israeli developer Benny (Menashe Noy). She has no background in real estate, but talked her way into the position, and immediately proves she’s got the resourcefulness, drive, organizational skills and original ideas to be more than a glorified secretary. Indeed, Benny is soon rewarding her accordingly with a promotion, particularly once her high-school French proves key in winning over wealthy Gallic buyers to a massive residential project that’s his biggest gamble to date.
In the immediate aftermath of that success, he grabs her for a non-platonic kiss, a move she soundly rejects. He apologizes, vowing the next day that nothing of the kind will ever happen again. Orna has many pressing reasons to take him at his word: Not only does she need this job to commence a new career path, but her chef husband Ofer (Oshri Cohen) has just opened a new restaurant that isn’t doing well, making their financial situation (with two young children to support) precarious. As she’s now handling apartment sales for Benny, working for him promises fat commissions on top of her salary, as well as a prestigious résumé item that might take her anywhere she wants later on.
Thus Orna has little choice but to ignore continued red flags around her boss’s behavior. A business trip to Paris proves in the worst way that he will not respect her boundaries. Traumatized after this experience — depicted in an excruciating hotel-room scene — she begins to fall apart.
Aviad and her co-writers manage a resolution that is satisfying without stretching credibility, or taking the film into revenge-fantasy schematics. The only logic gap is why Orna fails to explain clearly what’s happened to her husband, so his anger is inappropriately directed at her. We understand she’s not in her right mind, but this detail just doesn’t quite wash.
There are strong performances all around, with veteran Noy treading a fine line that keeps Benny’s motivations ambiguous. Is he really infatuated with Orna, as he claims? Or is he simply the kind of self-made tycoon who’s always gotten what he wanted, and can’t grasp why a woman he lusts after should be any exception? Ultimately his reasons don’t matter. But it’s useful for the film to keep them murky, as our focus should be on Orna’s perception. Daniel Miller’s cinematography is crisp and clean, yet also has a largely handheld intensity that captures our protagonist’s increasingly unnerved p.o.v.
Though polished in tech and design respects, the film furthers that psychologically raw air by eschewing any original musical score. There’s just the occasional overheard tune — including the ’70s Bee Gees-penned disco hit “If I Can’t Have You,” an ode to possessive desire that becomes a sinister in-joke in this context.