There’s a popular Japanese concept used in films called “ma”. It is the empty space, the quiet moments that separate major events from each other and give us room to breathe, room to contemplate the narrative twists and turns and the steady rise and fall of narrative action. In a film made of “ma”, can there be any drama at all?
Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a film composed almost entirely of the quiet moments. Following aspiring producer Jane (played by Julia Garner) during a day at the office five weeks into her role of junior assistant, there is a clear sense of mundanity. That is not to say the film is uninteresting, rather that the life it reflects is grimly same-same. Jane spends her week, and weekends, in the office taking on more work than she should, at worst a joke to be made of by her male co-workers, at best little more than a part of the scenery. At the centre of the film, figuratively and literally within the incredible symmetrical framing so often used, she is the embodiment of “should be seen, not heard.”
To further drive this home, Jane’s boss, whose presence looms over the office despite the fact he is never seen onscreen, makes his anger towards Jane entirely vocal. Viewers will not quite understand the supposed wrath of this man, since he can barely be heard through the phone when he calls Jane to berate her, setting the film in a distinctly different place to the audience and indicating one of The Assistant’s weaknesses. The audience watches Jane, but is not truly in her head, making her seem distant and flat. It is easy to pity her, not so easy to understand her character or who she is beyond work. But perhaps that further drives home how all-consuming the job truly is, how deeply taxing it has become.
It is bleak, music having been replaced by the clicking of the keyboard and the beeps and groans of the printer. Bleaker still in its themes, which are inspired by the #MeToo movement and Green’s understanding of a culture of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industries and professional workplaces as being not an outlier’s issue but an issue that affects everybody in some way. In The Assistant, this is shown by the constant micro-aggressions Jane faces, typically from her male co-workers who hypocritically put her in a position of fault and then offer a shoulder to cry on that Jane knows better than to accept. With men constantly trying to shut Jane down the viewer may expect her to turn to women instead, only to be met with a stark reality: when all women are simply trying to get by they have no time to be each other’s friends, or even allies.
Fifty minutes into the film, Jane takes her first major actions as a protagonist in an attempt to curtail the misogynistic office culture, which is ultimately futile. As a viewer, waiting so long for action to occur only for it to have no impact is deeply frustrating. Although the scene in which Jane reaches out to the company’s human resources does make for an emotionally intense scene, it is perhaps the only moment in which the film achieves this and the falling action makes up the rest of the film, sending it neatly to sleep with little else to say.
It is clear that drama the way we might have come to expect it is not that purpose of The Assistant. This is a film that requires patience and an open mind to digest its melancholic summarisation of a current state of professional being, further deterring viewers who seek escapism. The film is not, however, mundane; it is only a depiction of mundanity. It is a brutal exposure to the patriarchy and its manifestation to those lucky enough not to be victims of sexual harassment in the workplace but who still are disadvantaged by the systems that allow such occurrences. At times it seems almost surreal.
For fans of the quiet moments, this film is full of them. There is a beautiful use of cinematography and framing throughout that emphasise the spaces between time, where life just simply happens to no great effect. The Assistant is a quiet film, lacking in the overt drama so many are so used to, but charming in its ability to reflect accurately the little moments of nothingness so intrinsic to the human experience.