Of the themes to emerge during this year’s Cannes Film Festival — incest, dogs, neglected children — uncommonly strong women have been the most pervasive. This seems appropriate in a year where the jury is presided over by Jane Campion, the only woman to win a Palme d’Or in the history of the festival. As the festival opened, Campion accused the film industry of “inherent sexism.” Thierry Fremeux, who runs the festival, has by way of a rebuttal pointed out that one-fifth of the films in the official selection are by female directors, including two in competition.
But beyond films from the likes of Asia Argento, Alice Rohrwacher and Naomi Kawase, a surprising number of films this year are literally anchored by their tough, often-complex female protagonists. This holds true for Ronit Elkabetz as an Israeli woman fighting for a divorce in a rabbinical court in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” as well as Marion Cotillard as a working-class mother struggling to keep her job in “Two Days, One Night,” and Bérénice Bejo as an aid-worker trying to convince the UN of the humanitarian crisis in Chechnya during the Second Chechen War. By way of contrast, there haven’t been many memorable male characters or performances on offer — Timothy Spall and Steve Carell being notable exceptions.
This outsized female factor extended to two worthy Israeli titles that are screening here late in the festival, Nadir Lapid’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” (“Haganenet”) and Asaf Korman’s “Next to Her” (“At Li Layla”). Of the two, “The Kindergarten Teacher” is the more distinctive: more self-assured, but also more perplexing. Lapid, whose film “The Policeman” was a hit here in 2011 and who also wrote the (quasi-autobiographical) script, portrays the relationship between a middle-aged teacher and one of her students, a 5-year-old boy who extemporizes boldly experimental poetry. Several times a day, he begins pacing back and forth as if in a trance, announcing the coming of inspiration with the words, “yesh li shir, yesh li shir” (“I have a poem”). Convinced that she is the only one who can recognize the artistic value of her poet-prophet-prodigy (the boy’s father doesn’t want his son growing up to be a penniless artist), the teacher commits herself to preserving his shooting star poems at all costs. The further her obsession takes her, the more extreme and ethically unsound her methods become. Sarit Larry exudes cool tenderness in the lead. Away from the boy, she seems to take little joy in life. Behind her blue eyes lurk an ambivalent affection for her pupil — awestruck and tender yet full of disquieting devotion.
In the role of the presumed prodigy is newcomer Avi Schnaidman, by turns docile and stubborn, wise and infantile. Lapid wisely chose to cast a “normal” kid in the role, rather than an outrageously cute or zany one, and the strategy helps keep the film from becoming precious. But most of the credit for that goes to the director for his stripped-down, ascetic approach, filming in mostly-bare interiors and schoolyards, often using static wide shots that highlight background textures of sand, glass and walls. If this lends the film a mystical feel, it is compounded by the hypnotic repetition of the boy’s poems (which Lapid actually penned when he was a kid). Yet for all its virtues, the film’s enigmatic qualities end up overwhelming, leaving the viewer both unsettled (which is certainly the point) and frustrated (which I hope was not).
“Next to Her,” Korman’s feature debut, is a more emotionally satisfying, if more conventional, film. Liron Ben Shlush stars as Chelli, a public school security guard who lives with her developmentally handicapped sister Gabby (Dana Igvy). When Chelli leaves for work in the morning, she locks Gabby inside to howl like an animal and bang her head against the floor, resulting in threats from neighbors to report her to the police. With reluctance, Chelli finds a daycare facility for her sister. When Gabby, thanks to competent care, starts thriving for what seems to be the very first time in her adult life, Chelli feels her role as guardian jeopardized. It becomes clear that she needs Gabby more than Gabby needs her. Matters are complicated when Chelli invites new boyfriend Zohar (Yaakov Daniel Zada), a gym teacher at her school, to move in, creating an uncomfortable ménage-a-trois where they end up competing to care for Gabby. Living — and often sleeping — in close quarters also strains Zohar’s tolerance nearly to breaking point. Korman shoots this domestic drama with impressive candor and directness, creating palpable discomfort in many of the scenes inside the sisters’ cluttered, chaotic apartment (the film’s main set piece) and interspersing some welcome humor and, towards the end, a few narrative surprises.