Monday, September 29, 2008

Film Review #176: Jellyfish
Director: Etgar Keret
Screenwriter: Shira Geffen
Cast: Sarah Adler, Nikol Leidman, Ma-nenita De Latorre

You could not say that best-selling Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s work is exactly new to film. Over 40 of his short stories have been adapted to the screen – most recently in Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99, a stop-motion animation premiering earlier this month at Toronto’s film fest that Entertainment Weekly calls “utterly beguiling.” He made his own first short film a dozen years ago. And he teaches film at Tel Aviv University. Nevertheless when Jellyfish, which Keret directed, won the Camera d’Or at last year’s Cannes Festival, you could not miss the enthusiasm for a first feature’s good fortune – especially one Keret undertook only after a depressingly long list of other directors rejected the project, prompting him to reassure his wife that they could make this film together.

The Jellyfish script comes from poet and playwright Shira Geffen. She and Keret have been partners for a decade. She calls their film and their son Lev “twins” since the boy’s birth and the shoot’s last day coincided. And in retrospect, she said in a late February phone interview, Keret was the perfect choice anyway, exactly understanding the fable-like trio of entwined stories that in heavier, more literal hands could have fallen flat as a cake taken too soon from the oven.

One of this film’s great accomplishments lies is its gentle persuasion that we suspend our usual demands for a sensible plot just a little while longer. Geffen’s script springs from her own unpublished story of eight or nine years ago in which a five-year-old girl, taken to the Tel Aviv beach, floats out to sea on a plastic swim tube as her patents bicker obliviously on shore about her father’s mistresses. Jellyfish picks up her fate and elaborates the ready seaside images – the title’s creatures swept along by waves and tides, the wistfulness of boats in bottles and the ever-present ocean seeping in, say, through a leaky ceiling.

One thread concerns Batya (Sarah Adler), a disheveled, probably clinically depressed young woman who loses her boyfriend as the film opens and her demeaning job as a wedding reception waitress soon after. Sitting in the sand one day, Batya sees this child (Nikol Leidman) emerge from the sea, unspeaking, clad mainly in her plastic swim tube and, as a taxi driver later remarks, with Batya’s eyes. As it’s a Friday afternoon, Batya’s attempt to turn the child over to authorities fails. Having evidently got little nurturing from her politician mother or her distant father – each too concerned with their caring for others – Batya is soon doing her clumsy best with this mysterious, capricious child who begins hiding and shortly runs away. Of course the girl from the sea is a younger Batya. So disconnected is Batya that she doesn’t recognize herself – thus freeing us for a good while too from dealing with such symbolism. Geffen has said, “I think the connection between mother and daughter is maybe the most difficult and complex connection. All the stories have some mother, some child.”

Jellyfish may work so well because its other stories echo Batya’s. Russian √©migr√© Michael (Gera Sandler) and his sabra bride Keren (Noa Knoller), sidelined by her broken ankle from their dream Caribbean honeymoon, sit trapped in a tacky beachfront hotel where they cannot see the ocean. A suicidal stranger provokes Keren’s insecurities and predicts their future disappointments. A Filipino domestic worker named Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre) pines for her small son back home and somehow cracks the frosty reserve of her elderly charge, a woman in turn deeply estranged from her own daughter.

Keret’s readers are accustomed to his compact, seemingly casual mixture of whim and anguish. The US release of Jellyfish in April occurred as part of a cascade of events – press screenings in February with Keret along for interviews; the March DVD release of Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), adapted from a Keret story with Tom Waits as the undercover angel in an afterlife populated by suicides; Keret’s new book, The Girl on the Fridge later in April – all culminating in media attention Israel’s mid-May 60th birthday with Keret touted as the new generation’s artist in high profile spots on National Public Radio and the New York Times Book Review.

Meanwhile, Jellyfish is just ending its US theatrical run this week after almost seven months. And as of last spring, Geffen had begun a new screenplay – not something she wished then to say much about except that it involved two women, one Israeli and the other Palestinian. Catch the wave early.

Jellyfish releases on DVD on September 30th. This review appeared in the 9/25/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Nancy interviewed both Etgar Keret & Shira Geffen by phone in February 2008 in preparation for a pre-recorded interview with Geffen intended for WBAI Pacifica’s 2008 International Women’s Day special programming in March.