The Working Girl (Cert 15)
1 Disc DVD (Distributor: Signature Entertainment) Running Time: 99 minutes approx.
In its native France, this debut from Sylvie Verheyde is entitled Amoureux Solitaires (Lonely Lovers) while for international release it has been renamed Sex Doll. Presumably, this would be far too raunchy for uptight Britain, so we get the less provocative The Working Girl instead.
The film itself isn’t particularly raunchy and whilst both titles are apposite in delineating the subject matter, Sex Doll possesses a more mordant and poignant edge to it. Naturally the titular “working girl” is Virginie (Hafsia Herzi), a high class and in demand French call girl based in London.
On a night out at a club with her hairdresser best friend Electre (Lindsay Karamoh), they are approached by heavily tattooed English man Rupert (Ash Stymest) who simply drives them home. What they don’t know is that Rupert rescues girls from prostitution explaining why he seems to pop up wherever Virginie is. With both of them in jobs that requires no emotional attachment, feelings begin to grow between them.
If this sounds like an arthouse version of Pretty Woman then disappointment awaits; if it also sounds like a portal for steamy erotica then hard luck once again. There is some sex, there has to be, but it is purely functional and deliberately unappealing since we are viewing it from the perspective of someone uncomfortable with being slobbered over by portly, red faced adulterous businessmen.
The biggest drawback of this film is what kind of story Verheyde is trying to tell. There are three viable and potentially fertile options – a warts and all depiction of this seedy profession that attempts to humanise the girls involved in it; a thriller of sorts involving Rupert’s crusade to rescue the girls, offering plenty of gritty action; or a straight up exploitation soft core skin flick to keep the horn dogs happy.
Verheyde has opted to conflate the first two options, with the merest hint of the third (one brief glimpse of Virginie’s breasts is the sole nudity quota), and therein lies the problem, resulting in a confused narrative that doesn’t give us sufficient insight into the characters and what drive them. Rupert is the greater victim of this whilst Virginie at least is given plenty of opportunity to register her feelings visually.
In fact, the very first image we see is Virginie’s expressionless eyes, blankly staring out from beneath thick eyelashes as she is being mauled by a middle-aged client, which doesn’t change even when the inter course takes place. Once it is over, Virginie takes her gold envelope, thanks her client then gets out of dodge as fast as she can, a scenario re-enacted shortly after.
Home for Virginie is a modest but spacious studio flat which she shares with her dog, but the expensive wardrobe and show collection tells a bigger story. Yet away from this for wanting a better term “glamorous” lifestyle, Virginie’s civilian looks is comparably dowdy and she looks years younger. It seems Electre and Virginie’s family aren’t aware of her true career path, perhaps out of shame, or maybe out of security.
Every call girl has a boss and for Virginie that is Madame Raphäelle (Karole Rocher), a suitably coiffered and power suited woman possessing a charming facade we know hides a venomous dictator. Raphäelle assigns 18 year-old newbie Sofia (Ira Max) to Virginie to show her the ropes but Sofia’s first night on the job, at a private function to entertain a salacious father and son ends disastrously.
This might be viewed as a cliché since many prostitute related stories feature at least one unwilling newcomer in over her head, but in this context it is intrinsic in establishing Rupert’s role as the white knight while Virginie is left to face the music for the trouble caused. Not to mention that Virginie needs that all important wake-up call and if the visit from her kid sister doesn’t do it then it has to be another girl similar in age.
Verheyde avoids the usual verbal exposition and sentimental epiphany in Virginie’s overdue awakening to a life that amounts to enslavement under Raphäelle’s control, instead leaving it to the quite moments of introspection and the expressive performance of the eminently engaging Hafsia Herzi to relay everything. Her eyes may look sleepy and are often buried beneath heavy make-up and false lashes but they convey so much – pain, anger, ennui, disdain and sadness.
Ash Stymest is a British model, presumably of the catwalk/magazine type but his lack of charisma and acting ability suggest more of the Airfix type. He may appeal to the young ladies but he simply isn’t worldly or earthy enough to portray such a hardened figure as Rupert. The tattoos don’t convince since everyone has them these days nor does his wiry frame, undermining the aura of mystery he is supposed to project.
I must confess when Raphäelle first appeared I struggled to place the familiar face, but it wasn’t until later in when dressed down in jeans and jumper that I realised it was Karole Rocher, aka Roxane Delgado from gritty TV drama Braquo. It’s amazing what lipstick, styled hair and a smart wardrobe can do for someone who was decidedly unfeminine as the surly rogue police officer.
The film’s low-budget is evident from the first frame yet the camerawork is stylish and evocative. One area where this is used to great effect is during the sex scenes, forcing the camera close-up and slightly out of focus on the clients’ faces to give us as a horrific view of the unpleasantness Virginie has to endure.
Disappointment of the English dialogue not being subtitled for us hard of hearing viewers (especially when mumbled or obscured by thick French accents) aside, I fear Verheyde wasn’t quite able to explore the full potential The Working Girl. For a debut it is an accomplished presentation but Herzi’s bewitching lead performance and the film’s lush aesthetic cannot fully compensate for the confused and lack of established objective for the story.
5.1 Surround Sound
Rating – ***
Man In Black