Australian director Kitty Green’s new indie drama The Assistant is a #MeToo movie that, if you’ll pardon the hackneyed-sounding turn of phrase, is unlike any other.
Set over the course of one day in the life of the titular character Jane (Julia Garner), an assistant to a Weinstein-like producer whose presence is felt throughout the film despite never appearing on screen, it is a powerful indictment of institutionalised sexism with an intentionally vague, lingering quality. There is no tub-thumping “tell it like it is” speech neatly crystallising the film’s messages; no moment of fiery denouncement; no optimistic outlining of a path forward.
As a reviewer who often disagrees with the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, I must say I found the potted summary at the top of the page there – where the film is sitting on a stellar 91 per cent approval rating – to be bang on the money this time. It reads: “Led by a powerhouse performance from Julia Garner, The Assistant offers a withering critique of workplace harassment and systemic oppression.”
The Assistant is the Melbourne-born filmmaker’s first straight-up narrative feature, though her brilliant previous film – 2017’s Casting JonBenet – has fictitious elements. That film is difficult to describe in sweeping statements because it, too, draws to mind those hackneyed-sounding words: unlike any other.
I’ll return to Casting JonBenet in a moment, because it is a damn, damn good movie. It’s full of scintillatingly strange meta qualities and a final third that spills into territory reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s mind-melting Synecdoche, New York, with visions of sets and actors feeding into a kind of ‘theatre as consciousness’ experiment. I’ll discuss Green’s excellent first film in a moment, too – the comparatively straitlaced documentary Ukraine Is Not A Brothel.
“The conventional trajectory is to make waves in the Australian movie industry, before making a crack at Hollywood. But Green does things differently”
But before we get there, I need to make the point that Kitty Green is one of the most interesting and talented Australian filmmakers to have emerged since the turn of the century. She ranks alongside other great Australian directors who have arrived during this period including Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, The Nightingale), Andrew Dominik (Chopper, Killing Them Softly) and Warwick Thornton (Samson And Delilah, Sweet Country).
Green’s first two feature films received backing from Screen Australia, but none of her work is Australian per se. This makes her a rare example of an Australian filmmaker who forged an international career without using local productions as a stepping stone.
The more conventional trajectory is to make waves as a big fish in the small pond of the Australian motion picture industry, before purchasing a one-way ticket to Hollywood and making a crack at the big time. But Green does things differently. She does things her way.
In Ukraine Is Not A Brothel, which premiered at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, she documents the Ukrainian feminist protest group FEMEN, who make noise by matching public displays of nudity with messaging fighting against the patriarchy in all its forms – “against anything that infringes upon the rights of women”, as one activist explains it. Like other contemporary protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion, FEMEN operate with an understanding that effective forms of modern protest involve elements of performance art and street theatre.
Members of FEMEN view their breasts as weapons. In order to cut through in an age of information overload, they use only short messages that can fit on their bodies and on placards. Green lived with and followed the group for 14 months, capturing them performing various actions and sitting down for candid interviews, particularly with longstanding members Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Shevchenko and Inna Shevchenko. While filming a FEMEN protest in Belarus, the director herself was apprehended by authorities and deported. Ukraine Is Not A Brothel has a gritty streetside energy that perfectly suits its content; the very form of the film evokes authenticity and immediacy.
“The director’s three features have taken on complex subjects with visceral force, combining intellectual rigour and stylistic chutzpah”
Her next film Casting JonBenet (which is available to watch on Netflix, snapped up by the platform after its premiere at Sundance in 2017) upped the ante, and signified next-level filmmaking. It is a bigger, bolder, more complicated and more innovative film, with an intensely cerebral rather than streetside energy.
Throwing around various documentary and narrative film techniques, blurring the line between truth and fiction, it’s a wild ride. The first time I watched Casting JonBenet, my face reacted by contorting in opposite directions: eyebrows reaching towards the heavens, jaw dropping to the floor.
In cunningly roundabout ways Green explores the 1996 murder – still unsolved – of six-year-old beauty pageant star JonBenét Ramsey, who was killed in her home in Boulder, Colorado. The director does not dust off old police records in an attempt to find out who really did it. The film is much more ambitious than that.
It is less about the reality of what happened to Ramsey than an examination of the process that transforms reality into legend. (See? Told ya it was ambitious.) It explores how human beings share, rearrange and distort the dramas and tragedies of other lives, building campfire-type narratives that say more about the people sharing them than any events that actually occurred in the actual world.
Green films a range of actors from Boulder who think they are auditioning for roles in an upcoming movie about JonBenét’s murder, presumably not knowing there is no movie other than one comprised of the tapes themselves. So… there is no movie, but there kind of is a movie. The actors don’t just read out lines but discuss the lives of the Ramseys as if they knew them personally, delivering various judgments as statements of fact: that he or she couldn’t possibly have done this or that, or he or she must have done this or that.
This forms not just a way of studying ignorance and trial by public opinion – comparable in some senses to the Lindy Chamberlain controversy – but also how people reach towards narrative structures in order to make sense of life. As Jean-Luc Godard once said: “Reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”
As her first narrative feature, The Assistant shows Green in more control than ever. If her previous films involved telling the stories of other people’s justice, this time the challenge was not just to build an engaging narrative from the ground up, but to have that narrative represent and explore issues core to one of the most important movements of our time.
Green achieves this in part through her clever decision not to visually depict Jane’s problematic (to say the least) boss. Show the man and he becomes a very particular monster; keep his identity ambiguous and he represents any number of monsters.
Even though it is set within a 24-hour window, the film establishes the monotony of Jane’s day-to-day life – as an employee who arrives at work first, leaves last and navigates a continuous stream of bullying and sexism. Some incidents she encounters are subtly sexist, others blatant. She is bothered by many things, including her habit of cleaning up jewellery left behind in her boss’ office, and his tendency to conduct ‘meetings’ in a hotel where he has put up a beautiful young woman he hired as his second assistant. Jane also knows that being submissive and compliant is a way to survive in this industry.
Tonally, it is another masterstroke from Green. Long calculated shots colour graded in steely tones are matched to simple ‘in-situ’ sound effects, such as the whirring of scanners and computers, that form a prosaic but chilling atmosphere.
Each of the director’s three feature-length films has taken on difficult and complex subjects with visceral force, combining intellectual rigour and stylistic chutzpah. Green’s work pulses and vibrates, with its own kind of electrical charge. To say she’s a filmmaker to watch is one hell of an understatement.