M, 87 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Her job begins at the office before dawn, making ready at the start of the working day. There are water bottles to replenish, scripts to print, IDs to photocopy and the usual general tidying up. All the miscellany that smooths the way for the high-powered dudes she works for in the entertainment industry.
Getting ready for a new day means picking up after others too. A quick spot clean of the couch in the manager’s office, an earring that had found its way to the floor is whisked away until its owner can be identified and the item returned.
silence is the name of the game
Jane (Julia Garner in the role), a newly arrived grad fresh from prestigious North Western, aspires to become a producer. Silence is the name of the game in this office. Question is, what is she going to do? She gives little away as she goes through her menial tasks.
Where might it all end? Students of the late Chantal Akerman will remember well how a detailed daily routine ended up for a Belgian housewife in Jeanne Dielman, but this accomplished doco is more subtle than that.
Later that morning there are coffees and pastries to get, lunch orders to take – Better not mix up the turkey with the chicken! – travel and hotel suites to book and drafts of revised screenplays to distribute.
A steady camera, moving very occasionally, absorbs every detail. There are disturbing goings-on behind the scenes, but everything in front of camera is pared-back, minimal. Even the palette is locked-down in greys and muted pinks, as we follow her routine as an office assistant to a New York-based film industry executive, a serial sexual predator.
The boss is heard but not seen, existing only as an imagined presence in his high-backed green leather chair, and yet his influence is everywhere. The power of absence in the frame.
‘they told me you were smart’
We never see him though perhaps there’s a partial glimpse as he passes by Jane’s desk. We hear his voice (Jay O Sanders) on the phone as he ticks her off for ‘interfering’ in his private life. That is, hearing his irate wife out over the phone, while trying to sound helpful. But, he says, ‘they told me you were smart’.
In the course of this single day, Jane must type two emails apologising for perceived misdemeanours. ‘I will not let you down again’. Her young male colleagues, consciously/unconsciously contributing to her humiliation while behaving solicitous, supply the right form of words.
All tasks are performed with brisk and bristly efficiency. While everyone else in the office is curt bordering on rude, unsmiling, and conspiratorial, Jane may well be on her way to signing on to that kind of schtick too. But today she will visit HR and make a complaint to the manager (Matthew Macfadyen). It is a charged interchange that concludes with the reassuring back-hander ‘don’t worry, you’re not his type’.
Before the Harvey Weinstein case blew up, we may have begun to wonder how big shot producers could have got away with so much. The Assistant shows how the industry supported it, how the system allowed it, while turning a blind eye.
Cover up and complicity are all in a day’s work for Jane too, up to this point. Will she be a part of it? What will she do to get ahead?
Julia Garner’s performance as Jane is impressive. So much is conveyed without words, in the slightest eyebrow lift, the expression of the mouth, the downcast eyes, the set of the shoulders. To see Garner in the TV drama series Ozark as a member of a hillbilly crime family reveals her astonishing range.
What an accomplished turn this is from doco maker Kitty Green too. It’s her first fiction feature, written and directed by her (with additional input from Ming-Zhu Hii). And it is beautifully shot, all horizontals and verticals, by Michael Latham, who was cinematographer on Buoyancy the compelling Australian film of last year directed by Rodd Rathjen.
The Assistant is a tour de force, as small and contained as last year’s Bombshell, directed by Jay Roach, was big and brassy. In their very different ways, both films are powerhouse #MeToo pieces.
First published in the Canberra Times on 14 June 2020
Available to rent on demand from 10 June via Google Play, iTunes, Fetch TV, Telstra Bigpond, Sony (PlayStation Network), Microsoft, Quickflix