There’s a very palpable “more is more” philosophy at Cannes: more glamor, more stars, more wasteful opulence. But while the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford and Robert Pattinson have graced the red carpet in the past 24 hours, my attention has been riveted by a couple of intimate Israeli films that premiered in the festival’s independently organized sidebar programs, Semaine de la Critique and Director’s Fortnight.
Shira Geffen, whose film “Jellyfish,” a collaboration with her husband, the writer Etgar Keret, won the Camera d’Or in 2007, was back at the festival with the mesmerizing, funny and often unsettling “Self Made” (“Boreg”), which is screening in Semaine de la Critique. Going solo as director, Geffen, who also wrote the screenplay, gives us a double-portrait of an avant-garde Tel Aviv performance artist and a troubled Palestinian woman hermetically sealed inside themselves. The title refers to, among other things, an Ikea-like furniture company that Michal (the tragicomic and often panic-stricken Sarah Adler) calls after her side of the bed crashes to the floor one morning, giving her a nasty bruise (as well as possible amnesia) and setting off the often-hilarious chain of events that will eventually result in her trading places with the Palestinian Nadine (Samira Saraya, very stubborn and stoic) at a checkpoint.
Over the course of a single day, Michal is beset by a stream of unwelcome visitors, including a pushy and sanctimonious German TV crew who want to interview her about her upcoming work at the Biennial (hint: she’s undergone very invasive surgery to produce it) to a seafood chef who plays the violin in order to soften up the crabs. While Michal’s world is turned on its head, Nadine gets fired from her job in the DIY furniture factory that delivers Michal’s new bed, repeatedly gets into trouble at the Israeli checkpoint and is set up on a date with a neighbor’s son who, after sleeping with her, tries to recruit her as a suicide bomber.
The swap is the film’s boldest gamble, but Geffen makes it work in the context of the absurdist realities of these two lost women. As an exploration of identity and transference, it can seem like a brightly colored version of Bergman’s “Persona” but with much more humor and a “through the looking glass” sensibility. Like “Jellyfish,” every shot of “Self Made” is meticulously composed, with deep blues and reds animating Michal’s world, while Nadine’s is a landscape of desert yellow and concrete grey. While the Middle East conflict is important in terms of the film’s context and themes, “Self Made” is not merely a political film and clearly not a militant one. In this, it belongs to a growing number of recent films (like “Jellyfish”) that show that it’s possible to have a distinctive Israeli cinema that isn’t defined by the matzav.
I was afraid that “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” part of Director’s Fortnight, would be a rabidly anti-religious tract. After all, here is a film about a man refusing to give his wife a get, directed by two of Israeli’s most vocally and artistically leftwing artists, the brother sister duo Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. (I walked out of Shlomi’s “Testimony” or “Edut” two years in Venice.) I was expecting a portrait of religious life seen through the eyes of secular Israelis, something akin to Amos Gitai’s gripping yet problematic “Kadosh.” I was not expecting the sharply focused and explosive marital courtroom drama that held me spellbound me for the next two hours.
The final chapter in a trilogy about the hellish marriage of Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) and Elisha (Simon Abkarian), the film takes place near-completely in the often-airless confines of a rabbinical courtroom. (I haven’t seen the first two films, “To Take A Wife” and “Shiva,” from 2004 and 2008 respectively.) Viviane has lived apart from her husband for years and is now challenging him before a bet din to give her a get. By all indications this is a no fault divorce, which makes Viviane’s case all but hopeless in the face of halacha; in the absence of any tangible wrongdoing committed by Elisha, the rabbis who sit in judgment powerless to even compel him to appear in court, let alone give his wife her freedom. The fact that after more than 20 years of marriage to a man she can’t stand Viviane wants out just doesn’t cut it. Accusations fly and tempers boil in the tightly edited string of seemingly interminable courtroom scenes. Ronit Elkabetz is committed and persuasive, a mixture of desperation and righteous anger. It’s the single best female performance I’ve seen at the festival. Menashe Noy is incisive as her patient yet increasingly infuriated attorney and Abkarian keeps us guessing for most of the film what emotional depths (and motives) lie behind his poker face.
While the film has a clear political dimension (“This law has been around for 4,000 years, and it has not changed an inch. But I really hope it will evoke a serious conversation and of course we will be acting upon it, when the film is out in Israel. It will put it into people’s awareness,” Shlomi Elkabetz said in an interview with Screendaily), one of its strengths is its refusal to pass judgment on the characters.
Stay tuned for our next festival report, about David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” and Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.”