The taut, understated Israeli drama “Working Woman” captures the nuances, capitulation and self-blaming of sexual harassment in the workplace better than any film in recent memory. That is resonates so thoroughly with the current #MeToo movement may not seem all that surprising, though bear in mind that director and co-writer Michal Aviad began working on the film in 2012, long before #MeToo made headlines.
With the restaurant that her beloved husband Ofer (Oshri Cohen) recently opened struggling, Orna (Liron Ben Shlush), a 30-something mother of three young children, looks for a job to supplement the family’s income. She seems to have hit pay dirt when she interviews with Benny (Menashe Noy), an older, powerful real estate developer who is in need of an assistant. He remembers Orna from her days in the military, and hires her on the spot.
She quickly proves to her new boss that she is smart, resourceful and a hard worker, especially because her job requires her to keep long, odd hours. Still, Orna takes to the work immediately, and it isn’t long before Benny is doling out raises and promoting his protégé.
At first their relationship seems to be that of mentor and mentee, with Benny casually offering Orna tips to impress their clients, such as wearing her hair down and dressing “classier” – tips she takes to heart. But it isn’t long before Benny crosses a line and moves in for a kiss, which Orna wholly rebuffs. Seemingly embarrassed, he apologizes profusely and promises that it will never happen again. We, on the other hand, aren’t quite convinced.
That said, “Working Woman” is far from predictable, as director Aviad skillfully charts Orna’s mounting apprehension and anxiety, feeling trapped in both of her worlds. She loves the real estate work she is doing and the added responsibility – and money – it brings, but putting up with Benny’s off-handed comments, bizarre attempts at humor and overall sense of entitlement where she is concerned makes her uncomfortable to the point of dread.
On the other hand, she is well aware that without her paycheck her family’s finances will suffer, so she tries her best to rationalize Benny’s behavior, or dismiss it, and deal with whatever aftermath in silence. After all, she didn’t tell her husband about the kiss right after it happened, so how can she now make him understand what she has had to endure?
Aviad and her co-writers do a stellar job portraying the unspoken shame, mortification and self-hate that targets of sexual harassment often feel and predators have come to rely on. What makes the film even more compelling are the characters, with Ben Shlush and Noy both delivering standout performances. His Benny is not your garden-variety swine but rather a narcissist masquerading as generous, compassionate, warm and kind until those traits ultimately get in the way of what he wants.
It is heart wrenching to watch Orna’s trajectory, first excited by her new-found ability to excel at her job only to realize that it comes at a much higher price than she is getting paid.
Some film-goers may be put-off, or even disappointed, by how the story ends, but “Working Woman” will likely ignite important conversations about what so many women, sadly, still confront every day.
Part of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 4
WHERE: Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
HOW MUCH: $15 (tickets to both opening day films available for $26)
MORE INFO: Running time: 1:34 Visit stljewishfilmfestival.org or call 314-442-3179