Director Michal Aviad’s Working Woman (Isha Ovedet) is a difficult film to watch. The Israeli drama charts a young professional married woman’s endurance through a hellscape of increasingly egregious sexual harassment at work, and outright emotional neglect at home. But Aviad has provided such a nuanced and sympathetic cinematic interpretation of a woman’s perseverance in a brutally exploitative patriarchal economy, that the experience of watching Working Woman evokes a powerful empathetic response to viewers, especially female professionals who continue to suffer destructive workplace harassment, and abuse.
The working woman in question is Orna Haviv (Liron Ben Shlush, in a career-defining performance). Orna is a shrewd and diligent real estate salesperson who is hired for a fast-track position by a luxury real-estate developer, Benny (Menashe Noy). Benny immediately makes flirtatious comments on Orna’s physical appearance, and while Orna’s wary expression registers the red flags, a claim of inappropriateness in a non-unionized, male-dominated office is not such an easy option. Her husband (played by Oshri Cohen) Ofer’s new restaurant “Oregano” isn’t prospering, and the married couple has two kids to feed in today’s merciless economy.
Orna’s work and home settings operate in tandem to capture sexual harassment not just as an acute workplace problem, but as a more sweeping cultural horror. One such nightmarish sequence occurs when Benny corners Orna in a dimly lit office space and makes an abrupt pass at her. What’s perhaps more frightening, however, is the following scene where Orna encounters Ofer in a tiny dark kitchen, which is just as tightly confined as the prior office scene. When Orna weakly states that she had a successful day with a tellingly feeble gait and crestfallen tone, Ofer simply approves, and directs that the two go to bed.
Much of a nightmare is the worry that one’s fear will go unheeded. Working Woman‘s cinematography is particularly keen to this point, placing much of Orna’s uncomfortable moments with Benny in dark, claustrophobic spaces. In other scenes consisting of deft camerawork, Orna’s confrontations with Benny about his behavior linger on a half-profile of Orna’s face, or the back of her head, to emphasize that she’s only a fragment of a person in her male superior’s eyes.
The film’s dialectic patterns are relentlessly repetitive, treating Orna’s protestations as mere entries to be summarily rejected by aggressive mansplaining. Benny’s apologies for his transgressions, delivered in curt, stentorian tones, are mere pretexts to authoritatively quash Orna’s self-expression. At home, Ofer handles his wife as a functionary; Orna’s distress merely requires confirmation that she’s properly calibrated to do both her motherly and professional duties. Arising from this spare dialogue is not plot based surprise but continual suspense as to whether Orna will snap.
Aviad is not out to make Benny into a rote villain, even if his acts are deplorable and destructive. It’s entirely possible that Benny — played by Noy with an uncanny lack of self-awareness, and a casual air of male privilege — believes that his continual offerings to Orna of well-deserved business assignments are entirely separate from his sexual transgressions, or that his exasperating offers of food to Orna are merely avuncular acts.
Benny’s rationalizations are central to Aviad’s treatment of sexual harassment as an everlasting terror which cannot be blotted out by a successful financial transaction, a cursory apology, or a mere good gesture. The residue lasts. In one disarmingly routine morning scene, Benny insists that Orna have two pastries for breakfast. Regardless of Orna’s outright rejections, Benny nevertheless lurks over her office during a business meeting and places the plate by her side. When he leaves, Orna’s body recoils and she suddenly loses her train of thought. Benny may believe the extra plate of food is an innocuous gesture, but Orna doesn’t have that luxury. Based on Benny’s past behavior and his refusal to properly acknowledge it, Orna has no choice but to be alarmed by that gesture.
The last third of Working Woman is based on a harrowing traumatic moment between Benny and Orna, which ironically occurs at the apotheosis of Orna’s new career. Orna’s post-traumatic stress disorder is powered by Ben Shlush’s master class display of physical acting, from her jittery hands to her throat’s visible struggle to swallow water.
But this final act is hastened with a somewhat quick resolution, which plays as uneven compared to the film’s more detailed psychological treatment of its first 60-minutes. It’s likely that a full-feature could be dedicated to Orna’s trauma and shattered family life following her work with Benny. In this case, another ten minutes of film time could have added another layer of psychological complexity to an important (and all too often ignored) stage of victimization.
Despite this relatively minor shortcoming, Working Woman is an invaluable take on relationships in the workplace. Hollywood workplace comedies and dramas have frequently assumed that great success preordains a steamy romance. Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born (2018) advances this storyline, where after Jackson Maine gives Ally her opportunity to shine, the two immediately go back to the hotel to have sex. In Mike Nichols’ 1988 film Working Girl, Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford’s ascent to a major investment deal directly coincides with their hot romance. Neither film suggests harassment, but the link between success and sex is very clear, if not celebrated, in these films.
Working Woman conveys the horrific side of this storyline, where a woman does not want to be forced to have sex with her boss in order for her to experience success. For her consummate professionalism, shrewdness, and devotion to her family, a working woman should not have to walk around her office in utter dread for making this choice. But as Michal Aviad has successfully conveyed, this is all too often the case for working women.