Looking at sexual harassment, ‘Working Woman’ doesn’t flinch
As I was watching “Working Woman,” a 2018 Israeli drama released here this week, I thought of the Twitter storm just then unfolding in which a female journalist publicly identified a Seattle Times reporter who pivoted from career advice to crude sexual come-ons during an online conversation. And I thought of the anonymous men who then sent the female journalist hate mail and got her banned from Twitter and rewrote her Wikipedia entry into a barrage of insults. And I thought that pretty much every man should watch ”Working Woman” to get a taste of what half the people alive on this planet have to deal with, and if you don’t believe that you should probably ask them.
Directed by Michal Aviad from a screenplay written by Aviad, Sharon Azulay Eyal, and Michal Vinik, “Working Woman” is a straightforwardly-told story about Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush), a wife and mother of three young kids who goes back to work to supplement the family income; her chef husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), has just opened a restaurant and it’s not going well. Oren gets an assistant’s job working for Benny (Menashe Noy), a building contractor several decades her senior. Orna’s smart and resourceful, and Benny promotes her to sales when she shows a knack for bringing new tenants into his beachside apartment complex. She struggles to get the kids fed and to school on time, but she has pride in her work and the money’s good. And then things start . . . happening.
We’ve seen them coming for a while: Benny’s requests that Orna wear her hair down or dress a certain way for the clients. Orna has seen them, too, but part of what “Working Woman” is about is the way victims of harassment ignore or blame themselves for the early signs and then feel shamefully complicit as the situation escalates.
Which it does here, with dreadful predictability. An awkward kiss, which leads to heartfelt apologies, followed by a creepy cat-and-mouse game with the office lights one late working night, followed by a business trip to Paris that becomes a hotel room nightmare, one that the film plays out in a single take that only feels like it’s happening in slow motion.
Without stooping to the uselessness of style, “Working Woman” makes its points simply by staying with Orna as she proceeds through stages of shock, humiliation, self-loathing, self-censorship, all emotions her husband finds difficult to understand and which the Bennys of the world rely on. The movie doesn’t villainize the boss; on the contrary, it shows him moving through a world in which his behavior is expected and Orna’s resistance is punishable. You may apply this little lesson to any public figure you see fit.
The only issue a viewer may have with “Working Woman” is its ending, which allows Orna a measure of emotional satisfaction while essentially letting a serial predator remain on the loose. Would that have been too much for Israeli audiences? Would an American filmmaker have made a different choice and would that have made for a stronger movie or not? As it stands, “Working Woman” sends an audience out steaming that justice in such cases often remains undone. That’s a valid and realistic point, and maybe it’s even the intended one, but it would be nice to know for sure.
Directed by Michal Aviad. Written by Aviad, Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik. Starring Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen. At Kendall Square. 93 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13, sexual harassment and rape). In Hebrew, with subtitles.