30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 20: WORKING GIRLS (1986)

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Day 20 – WORKING GIRLS (Lizzie Borden, USA, 1986)

Not to be confused with the feel-good corporate comedy released two years later, this Sundance Special Jury Prize winner is something quite different, a dramatization of a single day inside a New York City apartment that serves as a covert brothel for a group of middle class sex workers. Co-written, directed, and edited by the ever-underappreciated Lizzie Borden (the multitalented force behind the ever-undervalued feminist dystopian classic Born in Flames), it is a no-nonsense look into the banal rituals and inevitable complexities of sex work. Considering the amount of nudity and frank depictions of various sexual behaviors and fetishes, it is a remarkably untitillating film, which can be attributed to the fact all sex acts are shown from the perspective of the woman involved, drastically undercutting the possibility for voyeuristic thrills. The film opens from the perspective of Molly (Louise Smith, who rather resembles Molly Ringwald) who is seen in bed comfortably entwined with her sleeping female partner just minutes before she’s off to work, signaling the film’s overarching investment in observing how little separates “the world’s oldest profession” from any other corporate office job Molly could very capably be holding down; as we watch a typical day unfold in the apartment it quickly becomes apparent that it functions like almost any other corporate office. A disquieting question is thus implied: is any corporate or service job not in its own way a form of prostitution?

But that makes Working Girls sound didactic and that’s not right at all: it’s often quite funny in the face of its disquieting implications. Indeed, the film that came most often to my mind is the 1937 classic Stage Door, with its large cast of vividly sketched female characters passing their days bantering, gossiping, jockeying for jobs, and complaining about the various men they have to put up with—but for all the surface cattiness, when it comes down to it there’s a very real sense of solidarity and mutual support in the face of social practices and labor systems that actively work to undervalue them all. At the same time it’s not a screwball comedy either, leavened by the type of stark observational style exemplified by Chantal Akerman’s towering Jeanne Dielman (obviously there are clear affinities in regards to content too). While the acting could be charitably called “amateurish”—all major roles appear to have been played by non-professionals—a number of the women nonetheless give vibrant, nuanced performances. I still don’t feel like I’ve done a very good job at all of capturing how quietly masterful of a film this is, as the more I think about it the more I’m impressed by its ability to broach such a diverse range of difficult topics—including race, class, gender roles, sexual orientation, fantasy, deception, agency, discrimination, exploitation—and do it with such clarity, grace, and unflagging generosity. It’s obvious why academia has accorded it a certain pride of place, but it really deserves to be more widely known and seen than it is. A truly great film.

[Watch Working Girls on Fandor here.]