Berlinale 2020 Review: The Assistant

Do you hate your job?

After a documentary reckoning with the case of child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, Kitty Green returns to the Berlinale with another equally troubling story, one that is perhaps even chillier. The Assistant is through and through an uncomfortable account of systematic silence, the root of which has become evident in the #metoo era, a system of institutionalised sexism and sexual harassment that clouds the entertainment industry.

Assistant is probably not the adequate job description for Jane (Julia Garner). What do you call someone who is part cleaning lady, part personal assistant, part secretary, part emotional punchbag? Jane’s job at a movie production company in New York City dominates her daily life. She is the ‘first one in, last one out’, arriving in the wee hours of the morning to prepare the office, arranges meetings, hands out new manuscripts. She is the invisible hand that makes things work.

Despite not being the only woman in the office, Jane does not share and camaraderie or sympathy with her female co-workers. Jane’s colleagues – male and female – treat her with an attitude on an axis that ranges from disinterest and ignorance to paternalism and abuse. And with around 400 CV’s that are supposedly lined up for her position, she does well to swallow all the indignities she faces, while constantly reinforcing her gratitude for the dream gig.

As for Jane’s boss, the head of a movie production company, he is a figure who remains unseen, never mind that his office borders on Jane’s office. Instead we see the traces ‘he’ leaves behind in his wake. A pair of earrings on the floor. Stains on the sofa. A wife that demands answers that Jane cannot give. One day, Jane is tasked to welcome a new assistant. In a scene that could fit into an x-rated flick, she takes the new girl to a high-class hotel and on the way there finds out that she has no previous experience in the film industry.

Centrepiece of this office horror-story is a scene in an office in an adjacent building. There is an unspoken accusation, heard loud and clear. An accusation that hits a brick wall in the shape of an HR rep (Matthew Macfadyen). After all, has Jane really seen or heard anything? Does she want to play the hero and bear the costs? Does she want to file a complaint? Maybe she is just jealous of the new assistant, the rep quips – and besides, she has nothing to worry about, Jane is not the boss’ type.

Fictional as the movie may be, in the current cultural climate, the film assumes a documentary quality in subject choice and approach. Very restrained and very focused, Green methodically follows Jane for an entire day, uncomfortably zooming in on her precarious existence in this man-made trap. Here is where Julia Garner shines. Her tremendous performance holds the movie together, achieving a lot with very little – pursed lips, firm looks, extended silences. Garner manages to cloak her character with a quiet and powerful dignity, even in the most harrowing of circumstances.

An assistant is someone who helps someone achieve a goal, who enables someone else to do something. They could also be an accessory to a crime. While the conclusion of the film is possibly unsatisfying, it sure is logically sound within the system it operates in. Would we break the silence?

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