Flirting with kitsch but arriving at poetry

A two-time winner at Cannes this year, Meduzot adheres to, but overcomes, Tel Aviv clichés.

meduzot film 88 298 (photo credit: )
meduzot film 88 298
(photo credit: )
MEDUZOT (Jellyfish) ***1⁄2 Directed by Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret. Written by Geffen. 78 minutes. In Hebrew, English, Tagalog and German, with English and Hebrew titles. With Sarah Adler, Noa Knoller, Gera Sandler, Ma-nenita De Latorre, Nikol Leidman, Zaharira Harifai, Tsipor Aizen, Bruria Albek, Ilanit Ben-Yaakov, Miri Fabien, Tzahi Grad, Shosha Goren There can be a fine line between poetry and kitsch, and the film Meduzot constantly walks that line. Most of the time, its first-time directors, Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret, manage to stay on the poetic side of the divide. The film, which won the prestigious Camera d'Or prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is ultimately saved from its occasional forays into kitsch and banality in two ways: the directors' gift for storytelling and vivid dialogue, and the film's stunning photography, which is especially remarkable given that Geffen and Keret are filmmaking novices. Nearly every scene presents stunning and beautifully composed images, but they are not empty exercises in painterly composition. Instead, they enhance the plot and highlight aspects of the characters' personalities. Written by Geffen, who in the past was best known as the daughter of writer Yonatan Geffen and the sister of pop star Aviv Geffen, and Keret, an internationally famous short-story writer (The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God is among his collections translated into English), this married couple have crafted an entertaining, moving, highly stylized and often funny film that captures life in contemporary Tel Aviv and paints a memorable portrait of one depressed young woman. The film focuses on Batya (Sarah Adler), a waitress for a catering company whose boyfriend leaves her in the first scene. She may live near the beach, but she's no beach bunny. This pale, mournful young woman usually sits on the beach fully clothed, staring out to sea. She can barely handle her job and looks especially miserable at weddings, surrounded by well-dressed, well-heeled partygoers. But although she works at a menial job, she is from a well-off but dysfunctional family. Her cold mother runs a high-profile foundation to fight poverty (some of the film's funniest moments come from a parody of earnest television ads for good causes). Her father - played by Assi Dayan, who seems to be making a career of playing fathers in screwed-up families these days - is an intellectual preoccupied with his much younger bulimic girlfriend. Her landlord is raising the rent and she doesn't have the energy to get him to fix the leak in her ceiling, which floods the apartment while the taps go dry (a situation that may be meant to show that she is being drowned by life, but could also simply be a realistic look at the condition of a lot of Israeli apartments). When a little girl walks out of the water and up to her at the beach, Batya ends up taking responsibility for this strange and silent child. The film tells two other main stories. One is about a luckless newlywed couple (Noa Knoller and Gera Sandler). At their wedding, she gets locked in a bathroom stall, tries to climb out and breaks her ankle. In her condition, the couple can't fly to the Caribbean, so they compromise and spend their honeymoon at a Tel Aviv hotel on the beach, where the bride is disturbed by the surrounding smells and noises. The elevator isn't working, and on some of the husband's trips down eight flights of stairs he meets a beautiful, mysterious, slightly older woman writer who is staying in the hotel's only suite, a suite his wife desperately wants to move to. But this couple, who represent the kind of supposedly idyllic life Batya might have if she were not so isolated, are unlucky not because of the wife's broken ankle or the problems at the hotel, but because the wife is so discontented and spoiled, in ways that seem all too realistic. The other storyline concerns Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipina caregiver who works with the prickly elderly of Tel Aviv. While their own children have no time for them or prefer not to deal with their cantankerous parents, Joy tends to them but longs for her own son in the Philippines, whom she misses terribly and who doesn't understand why she has gone to Israel. For most of the film, Joy works for Malka (Zaharira Harifai), an angry elderly woman full of complaints, whose daughter is too busy starring as Ophelia in an avant-garde production of Hamlet to visit her. The ludicrous production is one of the film's comic high points. And yet it is touching that the discontented mother can actually feel pride as she sees her daughter on stage, no matter how absurd the ramblings of the space-suit clad Hamlet. The film founders in some of the scenes with the lost girl, who is clearly meant to represent Batya as a child, before she was beaten down by her parents' conflicts and self-absorption. Nikol Leidman, the child actress, is extremely pretty and animated, but is not given the chance to act like a real kid at all. Her scrubbed good looks make her look like a child in a commercial, while at every moment it's clear she is a symbol rather than a character. Batya's fixation on a photo the girl finds in an old album at the beach is also one of the filmmakers' less original and compelling ideas. Still, in much of the film, the fairly weighty symbolism works well, in the context of the stylized direction and performances. The acting is uniformly strong, with Sarah Adler (who starred in the Israeli film Year Zero and also in Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique) and Ma-nenita De Latorre as the standouts. Tzahi Grad, the actor/director who just made Foul Gesture, is brilliantly deadpan in his scenes as an indifferent policeman. Usually, I intensely dislike the type of film I've come to call a TAMP movie (the acronym stands for Tel Aviv's Miserable People) and when I read descriptions of Meduzot, I wrongly assumed it was another TAMP flick. But the intensity of the directors' vision, lively writing, careful pacing, restrained acting and beauty of the cinematography make it a movie that is both a telling snapshot of a particular time and place and a universal story of sadness, disconnection and renewal.