Lizzie Borden’s ‘Working Girls’ Is About Capitalism, Not Sex

While offering a smorgasbord of mildly kinky tastes, “Working Girls” is far from prurient. When, midway through, Molly makes a drugstore run to replenish the supply closet, the movie suggests a Pop Art composition of brand-name packages: Listerine, Kleenex and Trojans. The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby noted that, although fiction, “Working Girls” “sounds as authentic as might a documentary about coal miners.”

Coal miners with ambition, that is: Molly, who has two degrees from Yale, is an aspiring photographer. Dawn (Amanda Goodwin) is a volatile working-class kid putting herself through college. Gina (Marusia Zach) is saving to open her own business. The women, who have amusingly little difficulty handling their generally well-behaved johns, are in control but only up to point. Midway through, their boss Lucy (Ellen McElduff) sweeps in, and as a gushingly saccharine steel magnolia, she is far more exploitative, not mention manipulative, than any of the customers.

Borden belongs to a group of filmmakers, including Kathryn Bigelow and Jim Jarmusch, who emerged from the downtown post-punk art-music scene of the late 1970s. Back then, “Born in Flames” and “Working Girls” seemed like professionalized versions of the incendiary work produced by scrappy Super-8 filmmakers like Vivienne Dick and the team of Scott B and Beth B. Revisited decades later, “Working Girls” appears closer to Chantal Akerman’s epochal “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.”

The similarity between the films is not so much subject (Akerman’s eponymous protagonist is a housewife prostitute) as attitude. “Working Girl” is notable for its measured structure, analytical camera placement and straightforward cool. Borden only tips her hand once, when she allows Molly — who has been sweet-talked into working a double shift — to ask Lucy if she’s ever heard of “surplus value.”

“Working Girls” is an anticapitalist critique that has scarcely dated, save for one bit of hip social realism I neglected to note when I reviewed it in 1987 for a downtown weekly. Asked how she heard about the job, a new recruit reveals that she answered a want ad for “hostesses” in The Village Voice.

Working Girls

Opening June 18 at the IFC Center in Manhattan;

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