Kitty Green’s timely and powerful feature debut portrays universal experiences of workplace abuse
By Gala Woolley
TW: sexual abuse
Director Kitty Green’s feature debut The Assistant follows a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a young college graduate working for a film production company. But as we follow the mundanity of her chores, it becomes clear that something deeply sinister is going on behind closed doors.
In this powerfully subtle #MeToo inspired drama, it is what is not seen which is the most sinister and affecting. We see Jane cleaning suspicious stains off the couch, finding women’s jewellery on her boss’s floor, disposing of syringes, and handling concerned phone calls from the boss’s wife. Under the heavy shadow of Weinstein, who was on trial for rape at the time of filming, The Assistant is a powerful commentary on the culture of complicity and silence in the entertainment industry.
The director described her film as being “about systems and structures that essentially keep women out of power.” Whilst there is no direct reference to Weinstein in the film, The Assistant is a clear commentary on the #MeToo scandal, and what has become known as Hollywood’s “open secret”.
In a 2017 interview for the Guardian, following the Weinstein allegations, LA film producer Emily Best announced how the film industry “provided shelter for his bad behaviour directly and indirectly” by staying silent. It is arguably the silence of others which aided and enabled three decades of Weinstein’s sexually abusive behaviour.
In the film, we witness the insidious complicity of Jane’s male colleagues, who jokingly warn her to “never sit on the couch” which we previously see her disinfecting. This connotes to the euphemistically named “casting couch” that referred to Weinstein’s coercion of women into sex with the promise of a job. Best described the universal nature of silence in the industry: “we’re all fucking complicit, and it has to stop”.
“Women who stay quiet about sexual harassment are often just trying to survive. Men who stay quiet are protecting a structure of power.” – Sady Doyle
Perhaps surprisingly, it is not only the men who enable predatory behaviour, and this is shown in the film. Jane herself accompanies a naïve young woman to a hotel, silently aware of the danger she is indirectly enabling. There is also a fleeting, chilling moment where a woman in an elevator tells Jane, “she’ll get more out of this than he will”.
Although shocking, journalist Sady Doyle also explained in an Elle article on the glaring difference between male and female complicity: “women who stay quiet about sexual harassment are often just trying to survive. Men who stay quiet are protecting a structure of power.” Men are not the victims in this damaging misogynistic culture, and whilst women – like everyone – have a responsibility to speak up, their motives can often be one of self-preservation.
Although undoubtedly alluding to Weinstein, Green’s intention was to portray a universal culture of workplace abuse, through the microcosm of Jane’s environment. Green stated in an interview, “I wasn’t trying to explore the bad apples. The film’s pointing to a larger problem, a systemic problem – a cultural problem, essentially – that still continues.”
Green’s choice to keep the boss off-screen is extremely effective in creating this universalisation, and instead of attributing the predatory acts to one individual, she conveys a sinister, faceless presence. This technique sustains the tension of the drama, which also plays out as a horror film, in which the monster is never directly seen. As is the case with many successful horror films, what is left off screen is often more effective. We do not need to see what goes on behind the closed doors to know exactly what is happening, and this is the position we share with Jane.
“I wasn’t trying to explore the bad apples. The film’s pointing to a larger problem, a systemic problem – a cultural problem, essentially – that still continues.” – Kitty Green
A pivotal moment in the film occurs when a very young and ‘attractive’ woman is hired as the boss’ assistant, and put up in a hotel. When Jane returns to the office to find the boss gone, she decides to take action. In the film’s most powerful and climactic scene, Jane meets with an HR representative to voice her concerns about the girl’s wellbeing. It is an excruciating example of what can happen when women do attempt to break silence, and the frustrating futility of trying to change a culture that nurtures complicity.
The HR representative (played by a sickeningly smarmy Matthew Macfadyen) encourages Jane to confide in him, and it is with momentary relief that we believe she is in safe hands, the composure of his tone and body language belying his complicity. It is a deeply uncomfortable and infuriating scene to watch, as it is soon evident that he is aware of the predatory behaviour to which Jane attempts to articulate.
Feigned ignorance soon turns into gaslighting, as he manipulatively makes Jane question her own beliefs. Macfadyen’s character sinisterly implies implications on Jane’s future, without explicitly articulating them, echoing Weinstein’s notorious blackmailing of career security in exchange for silence. He enquires about her future career goals and then asks, disturbingly calmly, “so, why are you in here trying to throw it all away over this bullshit?”
The reaction shot of Jane is painful to watch, as her expression screams what words cannot: what use is breaking a silence when no one will listen? The scene ends with a final gut punch as, demoralised, Jane leaves the room, with Macfadyen’s stomach-churning parting words: “I wouldn’t worry, you’re not his type.”
“The idea that we’re highlighting scares some people because it’ll force them to have to confront their own behaviour, and that makes people uncomfortable.“ – Kitty Green
Green, who had previously only made documentaries, based the film on interviews and discussions with women within the entertainment industry. She explained in an interview that whilst the topic has been widely covered in the press, the emotional impact on individuals has been less investigated. She describes the film as “a composite of the thousands of stories [she’d heard], seen through the eyes of one woman.”
The director also described her difficulty with financing the film, due to its confrontational nature. “The idea that we’re highlighting scares some people because it’ll force them to have to confront their own behaviour, and that makes people uncomfortable. But I think a certain amount of discomfort is a good thing if we’re gonna move forward.”
Thanks to women’s empowerment and anti-sexual assault movements #MeToo and Time’s Up, women in Hollywood are now starting to be listened to when they speak out against their male attackers and abusers. The movement has created a sense of solidarity amongst women, who have been encouraged to speak more openly about sexual abuse and address the power imbalances between men and women.
However, there is still much progress to be made. Harvey Weinstein is thankfully in prison, but this has not eradicated a universal issue. Green expressed: “I feel like we’re all part of this system that has kept women out of power for so long. And we all need to interrogate our own behaviour and have conversations about power and how we can make sure the balance is shared.” As a film about the culture of silence, let’s hope The Assistant continues the conversation.