Painstaking and formally exquisite, this single-minded drama has an almost documentary precision. Jane (Julia Garner, superb) is the new assistant for a big-shot entertainment mogul. That you can affix Doe to her name suggests that she could be any young woman entering the media industry. From her perspective we witness a single day at work, during which she suffers an endless stream of subtle degradations. These include gaslighting emails from her superiors, invidious collusion among her male peers, and, in the most painful scene, the artificial sympathy of human resources.
Written and directed by nonfiction filmmaker Kitty Green, the screenplay is the product of extensive research and testimony. But the realistic grounding of Jane’s encounters is transformed by the film’s tonal sterility. Characters speak off key. Believably mundane conversations are swallowed up by uncanny interiors and identikit office layouts. These rooms are airless, the inhabitants vacant. In a narratively justified move, the boss is only ever heard. His authority is necessarily non-visual: for him, consequences and awkward confrontations don’t exist. Accountability is a bad joke, one for the golf course.
Fletcher Chancey’s weird and eerie production design advances what could have been a mere fictionalised document towards the status of an unsettling art object. Leslie Shatz’s heightened sound work contributes to the general sense of hypersensitivity and suffocation. Never has audio of shuffled papers and shut staplers been so intrusive. Menial tasks are shaded with minor jeopardy, with the threat of occupational exclusion, with terminal pariah status. The persuasive display of microaggressions doesn’t simply gesture to current cultural politics but generates a state of accumulated aesthetic anxiety.
Garner’s performance holds together under this oppressive spatial and sonic weight. She retains in Jane a show of steeliness and self-determination that belies her compromised position. The abuse of power is pervasive: it follows her out of the building and into the street. Green’s eye for detail, aided by Michael Latham’s detached cinematography, doesn’t relent. Jane finally has time for herself. She buys a muffin. Crumbs fall onto the counter. Still in the vicinity of her workplace, she wraps up the rest and leaves.
The Assistant is released nationwide on 3rd April 2020.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for The Assistant here: