Lizzie Borden’s ‘Working Ladies’ Is About Capitalism, Not Intercourse

While “Working Girls” offers a hodgepodge of slightly confused flavors, it is anything but stuffy. When Molly opens a drugstore in the middle to fill up the pantry, the film suggests a Pop Art composition of branded packages: Listerine, Kleenex and Trojans. The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby noted that “Working Girls”, while fictional, “sounds as authentic as a documentary about miners”.

Ambitious miners, Molly, who has two degrees from Yale, is an aspiring photographer. Dawn (Amanda Goodwin) is a working-class teenage girl who is taking herself to college. Gina (Marusia Zach) saves to start her own business. The women, who amusingly have little difficulty dealing with their generally well-behaved suitors, are in control, but only to the point. Halfway through, her boss Lucy (Ellen McElduff) comes in, and as a sugar-sweet steel magnolia, she is far more exploitative, if not to say manipulative, than any of the customers.

Borden is part of a group of filmmakers, including Kathryn Bigelow and Jim Jarmusch, who emerged from the downtown post-punk art music scene in the late 1970s. Back then, “Born in Flames” and “Working Girls” looked like professionalized versions of the brand works produced by rabid Super 8 filmmakers like Vivienne Dick and the Scott B and Beth B team. Visited again decades later, “Working Girls” appears closer to Chantal Akerman’s epoch-making “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”.

The similarity between the films is less the theme (Akerman’s eponymous protagonist is a housewife prostitute) than the demeanor. “Working Girl” is characterized by measured structure, analytical camera placement and straightforward coolness. Borden taps her hand only once when she allows Molly – who has been put into a double shift – to ask Lucy if she has ever heard of “added value”.

Working Girls is an anti-capitalist review that is barely dated, save for a touch of hip social realism that I overlooked in my 1987 review for a downtown weekly newspaper. When asked how she found out about the job, a new employee reveals that she responded to a job advertisement for “hostesses” on The Village Voice.

Working girls

Opening June 18 at the IFC Center in Manhattan; ifccenter.com.

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