Sex work is portrayed with radical nonjudgment in Lizzie Borden’s immersive, richly detailed look at the rhythms and rituals of society’s most stigmatized profession. Inspired by the experiences of the sex workers Borden met while making her underground feminist landmark Born in Flames, Working Girls reveals the textures of a day in the life of Molly (Louise Smith), a photographer working part-time in a Manhattan brothel, as she juggles a steady stream of clients, balances nurturing relationships with her coworkers with the demands of an ambitious madam, and above all fights to maintain her sense of self in a business in which the line between the personal and the professional is all too easily blurred. In viewing prostitution through the lens of labor, Borden boldly desensationalizes the subject, offering an empathetic, humanizing, often humorous depiction of women for whom this work is just another day at the office.
Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls gets a new Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition digital encode is sourced from a brand new 4K restoration, scanned from the 16mm original A/B negatives.
Though what Borden and crew were able to pull off with their very low budget is beyond impressive, the film still wears that low budget on its sleeves, with some seams showing through. Despite that, and film elements that I have to picture may have been less than ideal, the restoration has turned out rather incredible and the film looks as though it could have been made recently if you can look past the more dated visual aspects. There are a few marks, stray hairs, and mild discoloration on the sides, but the restoration work has really cleaned things up; damage really isn’t an issue and what remains can be easily overlooked.
Details are sharp throughout, finer details and textures clearly rendered onscreen. The film is incredibly grainy, which is not too surprising considering the source materials, and the digital presentation is mostly up to the task of properly presenting it, though it’s not perfect: some darker areas and shadows can look a little bit noisy, but it’s clean a natural looking for the most part. Black levels are pretty good, and shadow detail looks sharp. Colours are also strong, particularly the blues, which look nice and deep. Reds also pop. In all, it’s an impressive restoration and it’s delivery on this disc is strong.
The film comes with a lossless 1.0 PCM monaural soundtrack. It’s not a very dynamic track, music and such coming off pretty flat, but dialogue is clear and sharp. There’s no damage to speak of either.
Criterion puts together a nice little special edition for the film, first porting over a 2007 audio commentary from a previous DVD edition, featuring director Lizzie Borden, director of photography Judy Irola, and actor Amanda Goodwin (as a note, the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD also lists an audio commentary from the same participants but I can’t confirm if that commentary is the same track here, Criterion mistaking the date). The three have all been recorded together and cover what one would expect from a cast/crew commentary: going over story development and casting, explaining details around shots, and even providing information around the filming and equipment and film stock. But the best moments revolve around the details suggesting an almost guerilla style of filmmaking that went into this, having to sneak around while shooting and finding ways to dig up money and/or save it (it turns out the various themed rooms in the film are actually all the same room, just done up differently). They also talk specifically about real-life details that influenced characters and incidents in the film, which leads to discussion around presenting the film as one simply about work and not as something that is supposed to be titillating or eroticized in any way, and this was aided by making sure to film any nudity from a “female gaze.” The track also manages to throw in a few surprises: though I suspected it, one moment in the film was stolen straight out of Clue: The Movie.
Criterion next includes three new interview segments, starting with a new 21-minute interview between Borden and filmmaker Bette Gordon, discussing Working Girls and its impact, while also bringing up Gordon’s film Variety when suited. The discussion spans across what each was trying to accomplish with their respective films, how they filmed nudity, and whether they could make films like these today. The second new discussion, recorded remotely, features assistant director Vicky Funari, producer Andi Gladstone, and actors Louise Smith and Amanda Goodwin, and runs 22-minutes. The four all reminisce on the shoot, the actors sharing their initial reactions around the script and the difficulties that came with taking the roles. There is also quite a bit of discussion around a deleted scene (mentioned also in the commentary) which involved a very graphic shot of a sex act that it sounds Smith actually performed (and Funari is still disappointed it got cut out), along with Harvey Weinstein’s involvement in the film, who used the success of the film to build his stature in Hollywood and then “be a piece of shit.”
Both of these discussions cover the film’s production and relevance today to a satisfying degree (and there is a lot of mention around Borden's Born in Flames, clips of which all appear to come from a new restoration), but the best feature on here is a 26-minute remote group discussion between four people who work in the sex industry: Jo Weldon, Selena the Stripper, Antonia Crane, and Daphne. The four have worked in various sectors of the sex trade, from online performing to actual management, and here they talk about the film and its portrayal of the day-in-the-life of its characters. They also expand on the areas the film either only touches on (or even ignores), which includes the emotional abuse and gaslighting those in the industry go through (whether from clients or management) as well as the blatant racism that is present, Selena mentioning she can make more money when she passes herself off as Latina rather than black. Daphne also touches on her experiences in the industry as a trans person and then the four talk about the term "sex worker" and whether its an appropriate term. It’s a really fascinating and eye-opening discussion that I have to give Criterion real bonus points for putting together.
Criterion also includes a booklet with this release, which starts off with an essay on the film written by author So Mayer, writing about the film as being both expressionistic in its depiction of sex work and representative of "Marxist feminism," basically bring the labor of these women characters "front and center" in a very matter-of-fact manner. The booklet also features a reprint of a 1987 interview between Borden and film scholar Scott MacDonald, who talk about the film's frankness and its un-erotic nature in depicting the business.
In all, it's a solid set of supplements covering the film and its subject matter, the group discussion between those in the industry being the stand-out.
Some dated aspects and the film's limited budget play into holding the presentation back a little, but the end results are still quite staggering all things considerd; it's very sharp and very clean. Criterion also throws in some insightful and fascinating supplemental material, making this a title well worth picking up.