In her wryly fine and fictional “Working Girls” (at San Diego’s Guild Theater), film maker Lizzie Borden takes us inside a bustling, expensive Manhattan bordello and lets us watch the 18-hour day of one of its best and brightest “girls,” the thoughtful, articulate Molly (Louise Smith), a Yale graduate with degrees in both art history and English literature.
What we see in the course of that very long day is funny, insightful, banal, sad, tedious, informational, infuriating--everything but erotic. There is a businesslike nudity, upstairs in the bedrooms between the women and their clients, and one after another “sexual situation,” but it would be difficult to find anything remotely sexy in these exchanges.
That’s exactly Borden’s point, and the grinding out of loveless love would be even more depressing if its purveyors weren’t as lively, as sharply funny and as interesting as they all are. (Although the film is unrated, its ad states that because of its explicit nature, no one under 18 will be admitted.)
Borden, who produced, edited and directed “Working Girls,” and co-wrote it with “Sandra Kaye"--actually actress Marusia Zach, who plays the film’s savvy, dark-haired Gina--takes a documentarian’s stance. And with it comes the death of a lot of cherished cliches.
You won’t find anyone lounging around downstairs in open negligees, Merry Widow corselets or satin pumps. It’s not only inaccurate, it’s corny. Besides, Lucy (Ellen McElduff), the relentlessly genteel, youngish madam would never allow it. It doesn’t go with her elaborate social airs that hang as cloyingly as sickly sweet room freshener.
Still turning an occasional trick herself, Lucy-the-human-cash register is like the worst sorority housemother in life. She snaps her fingers like castanets as she spots a “girl’s” feet on the walls and greets every single customer with an unvarying “What’s new and different?” Mostly, she is grindingly, stunningly boring; she’s charmless, surprisingly stupid, racist and as warm and real as plastic wood grain.
Lucy hasn’t even the honesty to admit to herself what she does: It’s only one of the things that drives her current crew of “girls” bonkers. Dawn (a strong and expertly hilarious performance by Amanda Goodwin), youngest of the group, who can probably earn her living and pop bubble gum at the same time, is particularly incensed by Lucy’s capacity for self-deception. About herself, the 20-year-old Dawn says cheerfully, “I’ve always been a whore--but never a groupie.” She’s currently struggling with a term paper for law school.
Dawn’s admission that at the very beginning she worked on the street shocks Molly, who has been working two months and only in the comparative safety of Lucy’s place. (Lucy’s place is also airlessly claustrophobic, a quality that grows on us as pervasively as it does on Molly--it’s only one of Borden’s devices to give us a feeling of what this work is really like.) Molly, who lives with her black woman lover and that woman’s little daughter, seems to be headed for a career as a photographer.
Gina (co-writer Marusia Zach) is saving her money to open her own business--a boutique or a hair salon. Then, bye-bye to this job forever.
The elegant, sloe-eyed April (Janne Peters), who’s 43, has had a run of bad luck lately: she’s been beaten up and robbed, although it may have something to do with her coke-dealing on the side. At Lucy’s, having to put up a pleasant front as the men choose the new girls or the younger girls is beginning to eat away at April’s already-rocky self-image.
Borden spins out the details of these women’s lives cannily; it’s the sort of effortless life-story swapping you’d hear in a dorm or at a boarding school. But her real forte is her work with her actors: with Louise Smith’s increasingly put-upon Molly as the central force of her film, and Amanda Goodwin’s feisty and utterly irreverent Dawn as its great set-piece, Borden has two performances that are unmatched in their simplicity, straightforwardness and strength.
The other women are also fine, including McElduff as the strident Lucy and the beautiful Carla-Maria Sorey as a young black woman who arrives for an interview and is pressed into service for the evening by the manipulative Lucy.
And the men?--most of them nonprofessionals cajoled by Borden into taking their roles. They’re good and a few of them very good: Fred Newmann as Fantasy Fred whose scenario includes the curing of the blind, by somewhat unusual means. Noted film maker Richard Leacock appears as the bow-tied, sardonic Joseph, the Harvard lawyer with a penchant for bondage, anxious to date Molly, away from Lucy’s. Saunder Finard is touching as the older businessman whose card Molly keeps, and Norbert Brown is the girl-shy Neal, so smitten by Molly he brings her the literal shirt off his back.
“Working Girls,” well photographed by Judy Irola (“Northern Lights”) will keep you brooding about its issues for days afterward--something of a tribute to its air of unquestioned reality. A few questions are sidestepped: the psychological “whys” that actually brought these upper-middle-class women here, and the wonder whether or not a longtime prostitute grows to have contempt for men in general.
Borden’s attitude toward her male characters isn’t contemptuous. They’re more or less average, with more or less conventional tastes, and we’re certainly not encouraged to pity them. Still, she has loaded her deck slightly by placing the splendid Molly in a lesbian relationship--a quiet political comment on where men stand in one “working girl’s” life.