Thursday, July 10, 2008

Life's little stings [Jellyfish]

Jellyfish (Mezudot) [No rating]
Grade: B
Cast: Sarah Adler, Nikol Leidman, Gera Sandler, Noa Knoller, Ma-nenita De Latorre, Zaharira Harifai, Ilanit Ben Yaakov
Director: Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret

How do the critics love thee? Let us count the "waves."

China. Scandinavia. Iran. Mexico. Korea. Romania.

All of these places, in the past two decades, have been said to have had a "new wave" of emerging filmmaking talent. In truth, the definition now of a "New Wave" is anytime that a group of elite critics stumbles across three high-caliber films from the same country. It's a little like stumbling upon a lost Amazonian tribe. What's the big deal? They've been there forever. You're the one who hasn't.

The up-and-coming wave right now is Israeli, with the recent appearance of features such as The Band's Visit and a Cannes award-winner, Jellyfish. With Jellyfish, from husband-and-wife writers-turned-directors Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret, the use of the word "wave" is particularly appropriate. Every character in its interlocking stories is portrayed as figuratively "out to sea." (In fact, the frequency of the sea metaphor will leave your head swimming.) The characters move through the picture like our favorite gelatinous transoceanic journey-fish, tossed about on the waves and stranded on the beaches of fate.

The film tethers a number of disparate characters to its mast. A depressed young waitress with parent issues. A young girl wearing an intertube who walks in from the sea. A Filipino immigrant caregiver in a death struggle with Hebrew. A finicky bride with a broken foot from a bizarre bathroom escape. A run-ragged groom taking refuge in strangers and orange juice. A mysterious writer lurking in the hotel room upstairs. An actress who plays a wonderful corpse and her unsatisfiable mother.

Tel Aviv life here is seen as unmoored. The characters' existences are bathing in Smuckers. The childhood movies of one person replace their absence for someone else. The poetic sentiments of one character become the suicide note for another. Even the past is merging with the present.

There are still bruises on my head from where Jellyfish beat the sea imagery into it. As writers, Geffen and Keret have a tendency to overemphasize symbolism. I think this comes partially from background and perhaps partially from insecurity, because there is very little else holding together its stories. In some ways, the film feels like three or four short films stitched amblingly together. It has the good fortune that all but one of these stories are creative and interesting. (There is a noticeable dip whenever we return to the Filipina's story.)

I'm going out on a limb to say that Geffen and Keret are strongly film literate, because the movie reminds me of many. From Almodovar, the fascination with female bonding. From Kieslowski, the mutliple stories and the vagaries of fate. From Wong Kar-Wai, the youthful longing, the fractured parental relationships, and the eruptions of memory. But whereas Wong uses filters and cinematic techniques to create distance and distortion from the past, Geffen and Keret let the landscape of memory flow in naturally. You don't realize you're in a surreal blend of past, present, and possibly future until it's impossible to avoid the conclusion. That, to me, is what makes Jellyfish unique and (sea-)worthy.


Daniel G. said...

Great job getting through with this one. I noticed you describe the characters and style more so than the "plot", which really doesn't exist in the traditional sense.

However, I do agree the Filipina caretaker line was probably the weakest.

And I thought the little girl was really creepy.

Interesting observation about the "wave" theory also. Israel would need a third to seal the deal, right? I wonder what it will be.

K. Bowen said...

I'm thinking there might have been a third that didn't come to mind while writing. But rest assured, one will be found.

As you said, it's a weird film to write about. I think I did a better job than I figured was possible.

Evan Derrick said...

I really loved this one, in part because I had zero expectations going into it and it just charmed the pants off of me.

Wonderful work here, Kevin, attempting to describe the mood that this film evokes. Not an easy task, is it? I think you managed to do it quite well - your piece recalls the tone of the film in many ways.

Your comparisons to other filmmakers are astute, but the one that came to mind for me the strongest was Sophia Coppola. This film bore a strong resemblance to Lost in Translation in many ways.

And I somewhat disagree with Joy being the most tired storyline. The moment when she sees that the old woman has purchased the boat for her and they burst into tears...well, I was crying almost as much as they were at that point.

Perhaps the other Israeli film was Beufort? That was the war film that was nominated for Best Foreign last year (when The Band's Visit should have been). I haven't seen it, nor have I heard much about it. I'll have to seek it out.