Cinema of Israel

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s third film, Synonyms, like its predecessor, The Kindergarten Teacher, exhibits a special attention to words. It comes in the form of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli ex-serviceman who leaves his home country for France. In Paris, he picks up a French dictionary and amasses synonyms to describe his hate for Israel. He refuses to speak in Hebrew, even when he works at the Israeli embassy and rubs shoulders with fundamentalist Batar volunteers. Identity being socially determined, Yoav can neither completely abandon Israel nor assimilate into the French culture that he loves unilaterally. Lapid realizes that a realist approach to this autobiographical tale would be both tedious and unoriginal, so he pegs the film on a register where psychological causality doesn’t hold. A non-professional, Mercier invests all his energy into the shots, his extreme physicality threatening to spiral out of control at all times. The film is likewise rugged, mixing nausea-inducing handheld shots with more graceful movements of the camera. The extra space available offered by the widescreen also allows for much movement and dynamism within shots.

Inspired by the location as well as his sojourn in France, Lapid draws liberally from the art film tradition. Yoav, and the bourgeois couple who shelter him after he is robbed, are variants on Bresson’s disaffected young men, and their half-naturalist, half-theatrical line delivery is similarly inflected with poetic stylization even when the content is ordinary. The constant interaction between youth, poverty and the sense of dislocation also recalls Carax, while the makeshift ménage à trois Yoav forms with his hosts could be from any post-68 French film. It’s to Lapid’s credit that he’s been able to mould these influences into a personal style. On the other hand, there’s really no framework that contains Yoav’s actions. Just when Yoav obtains French citizenship through a sham marriage, he rejects the idea owing to some undefined moral compulsion. He belts out the Marseillaise and Israeli national anthem with equal zest at the integration class, but the film also undercuts the Republican values taught at the same course. Yoav’s contradictions, as a result, feel artificial, a dramatic contrivance with very little context to back it up.

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Having tragically lost her sister and parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. While Christian is understanding, his friends think she’s taking too much advantage of him, offering little in return. When one of Christian’s friends invites them to his village in Sweden to participate in midsummer festivities, Christian asks Dani to join them in order to not offend her rather than out of concern. When the film actually gets going, the group finds itself in an isolated commune in central Sweden. The commune, uniformly of Scandinavian extraction and sporting white costume, is welcoming of the strangers, offers them psychedelic drugs and lets them tour their facilities. But movies have prepared us to read communes as cults, and this one turns out to be no different. The summer festivities grow bizarre by the day and includes ritual suicides and sacrifices. Anthropology graduates, Christian and a friend, meanwhile, fight over the rights to write a thesis on the commune. Soon enough, the visitors make those idiotic moves characteristic of horror movies and end up disappearing, leaving Christian and Dani to fend for themselves.

If Midsommar takes its own time to move the story along, it’s because it fashions itself as an intimate film about lovers’ paranoia expressed in horror movie terms. If the film has an insight to offer, it’s that couples in isolation from each other are prone to being brainwashed into doubt, be it by well-meaning friends or by murderous cults, into believing that they deserve better than what they have. It would have served the film better then to have characters that aren’t off a stencil as they are here. Dani, especially, comes across as needier, clingier than the film supposes, and her constant anxiety about Christian ignoring her make her even less sympathetic. Nor does the film have any ambivalence towards the commune to genuinely propose it as a solution to Dani’s perennial loneliness. The tragedy of her past is inserted in flashes, claiming psychological weight in a film whose pleasures are on its surface. Midsommar succeeds primarily as an assured iteration of the last girl template and is noteworthy in how little it relies on traditional horror movie tropes: it’s shot in broad daylight of northern summer, all shocking information is signalled beforehand, and visitors to the cult meet the exact fate you imagine for them. The film has passages of alluring visual and sonic rhythm, and the long-tether narrative moves through different perspectives and spaces freely once at the camp. The camera has a life of its own, pushing and pulling, craning up and down to describe a world out of whack.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum immerses the viewer into the bohemian life of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a seasoned hedonist spending his days on the beaches of Florida in sex, alcohol and drugs. Moondog is a poet of unusual talent, we are told, and lives off the inherited wealth of his wife Minnie-Boo (Isla Fisher), who has an open affair going on with Moondog’s friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). When Minnie-Boo leaves behind a will that obliges Moondog to publish his long-pending book in order to inherit her money, the decadent poet becomes a nomad, reaching out to old friends for help. With a highly expressive colour palette, Korine’s sensual direction evokes a particular, self-indulgent view of life on the beach. Cycling through sunlit exteriors, interiors of gonzo tones and moody fluorescent streetlamps, the film progresses in a mosaic-like fashion, never lingering on any event for long, just like its protagonist, even as it deals with plot mechanics. Moondog’s treads light on the ground underneath, even when he’s pushed to a corner. And the film’s breezy aesthetic beguilingly captures this sense of transience of things.

Korine punctuates Moondog’s uncommitted life with moments of pathos, culminating in a charming romantic sequence with Minnie-Boo, the nightfall, the sea breeze, the white streetlight and Peggy Lee’s If That’s All There Is brought together into a fatalistic mix overseeing the tragedy that immediately follows. The Beach Bum is evidently on the side of Moondog, whose excesses it subsumes in a Romanticist notion of the downbeat artist who flouts conventions, but sees things more clearly than those around him. Moondog is a flaneur, perennially on the road with nothing but typewriter and a sack of books, depending on the universe to see him through the day. But the film also makes it plain that Moondog’s poetry is juvenile. He plagiarises from Lawrence, Baudelaire and Whitman, but his own work reads like bathroom scribbling. The people around him indicate again and again that beneath Moondog’s shallow life lies a core of genius, that behind his ironic relation to people and things likes a being of deep sensitivity—an intimation that never comes to fruition. These assurances of greatness subsidise his vulgarity and provide a reason to consider his humanity—an instrumental morality that goes against the film’s generous-seeming outlook.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

In contrast to The Beach Bum, Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir presents a modern, wholly original vision of the artist figure. Her autobiographical Julie (a heartbreakingly beautiful Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a filmmaker in training, is neither a tortured genius, nor a social outcast. She is everything one doesn’t associate with artists: generous, unassuming vulnerable, passive, docile and supremely decent. She is in a romantic relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an opinionated, strong personality who looms large over Julie’s life. His yearning, poetic letters of love—presented as interludes read by Julie over shots of the countryside horizon—ascribe to her a power over him that (a) she doesn’t possess and (b) only serves to further disempower her. “Don’t be worthy, be arrogant”, he advises her. But Julie is incapable of feigning arrogance or authority, and that’s what gives The Souvenir its unique force. She is literally self-effacing, seen as she is at the edge of the frame for most part of the film. Julie is told to make films based on her experience, but she can’t bring herself to be arrogant enough to believe it’s worthy of being filmed. She’s always seen writing something else than her own life.

What The Souvenir gets so right is that Julie’s self-doubt as a person—in her relationship with her parents, with Anthony—feeds on and into her self-doubt as an artist. At shoots, Julie is never in control, allowing her work to be overshadowed by her collaborators. She’s mentally elsewhere, carrying the guilt of ignoring Anthony and regularly calling him back from the set. Hitchcock is invoked, and The Souvenir can be seen as a loose reworking of Suspicion, where Julie lets Anthony overpower her despite her better judgment. But unlike the swooning Joan Fontaine who is quite obviously head over heels in love with Cary Grant, Julie’s irrational attraction and jealously towards Anthony feels somewhat theoretical and laboured, added in retrospect. Shooting in 16mm in a beige-brown-white aesthetic, Hogg evokes the eighties through events entirely offscreen—money problems, Irish bombings, the flourishing of cinéma du look in France. She frames every shot with thoughtful consideration, with plenty of negative space. She often films Julie through reflective surfaces, accentuating the sense of her fragility, and cycles through familiar spaces and compositions, rendering them as intimate as the subject.

The Jigsaw Called Past

A Paradox Of Memory

We always have that “one foreign film” to top it all, don’t we? Continuing the tradition of extraordinary films like The Lives of Others (2006)4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), this year we have an Israeli flick Waltz with Bashir. Already a winner of the Golden Globe for the best foreign film of the year, the film is all set to make it big at the Academy Awards late next month. Director Folman dedicated the Golden Globe to all the babies that were born during the production of the film and desired that when they watched the film in the future, they should think of the film as an ancient video game. And indeed, Waltz with Bashir is a sincere attempt to come to terms with the mistakes of the past.

Waltz with Bashir takes place 20 years after the “purging” operations of the Israeli army in Lebanon. Ron is one of the soldiers in the war who is leading a peaceful life as a filmmaker now. One gloomy night, after he hears about the strange dream that haunts his friend, Ron decides to dig up his past. This takes him to various places across the globe as he gradually recovers his memories of the fateful war. There is considerable romance in the events of the war, with Apocalypse Now – like celebrations of destruction. Men come, men go; No one recognizes the other completely, but each one has a story to tell. Each one has a version of the war. We are presented many POVs as Ron continues inquiring his role in the war. He isn’t happy about what he is discovering. But the thirst for truth keeps him going.

Waltz with Bashir presents a great paradox now. One that all of us carry with us in one form or the other. One that uniquely characterizes the human intelligence. A paradox of memory. When you want to forget something, your mind does not let you. It keeps coming back to haunt you until you confront it for good. And when you want to remember something desperately, the same memory starts playing tricks with you. It cooks up some mutated form of the past combining elements of truth and fantasy. Ron seems happy with his filmmaking business until the inevitable shadow called past catches up with him. He realizes the need to remember. But no one lets him – neither his own mind nor his friends’. Early on, Ron’s psychologist friend tells him of a memory experiment where people were found to accept small deviations from reality as reality itself. Similarly, everyone seems to have settled into some form of comfortable reality in order to barely escape from the horrors of the past and yet remember their years in the war. Unwilling to strike a balance between the need to document and the need to forget, Ron decides that he has to know what happened and not speculate.

It is but natural to be reminded of the previous year’s fantastic film Persepolis, for both employ animation to address issues of very high importance. Persepolis, using its childlike animation effectively along with its monochrome, presented one girl’s quest for identity and her abstraction of the ever-changing world. Marjane’s fantasies of a fairy-tale childhood are slowly corrupt by the knowledge of the harsh realities of the war-torn world. The ever-unsafe world prevents her from carrying on with her illusions of undisturbed happiness. Waltz with Bashir, on the other hand, is an account of one man’s struggle to recollect the past. It sort of reverses the structure of Persepolis and presents us a man who attempts to recall reality exactly as it happened. Ron does not want to concoct a “safe version” of reality that remains tough enough to reflect truth but comfortable enough to be complacent about what happened. In essence, Waltz with Bashir asks us to confront reality– without any pretense and escapism – and get over with it once and for all. And this, in my opinion, is the film’s greatest success.

One can’t entirely say that the film does not take sides. True, it is told from an Israeli point of view and yet comments on the atrocities done towards the Palestine refugees in Lebanon, but the Lebanese evangelists won’t be happy with the depiction of the massacre. However, this can not be considered a blatant caricaturing of them. Waltz with Bashir takes just a single event from the war – the refugee camp massacres at Sabra and Shatila – and questions the appropriateness of that event alone. Yes, it does take a stand there and it does condemn the way things unfolded on that dreadful day. But that’s about it. It does not extrapolate the incident to judge the present political policies of either country or even question the motives of the war that it depicts. It is as if the film isolates the lone event in order to denote the sheer enormity of it all and to show how such unwarranted acts of violence have a deep impact on the psyche of an individual and of a nation.

I can’t complain on the technical grounds either. The animated characters are deliberately out of sync with their environment, which gives the film a kind of surrealism that is in tone with Ron’s recurring dream. The dubbing is spontaneous with even mistakes finding their way into the film. The narrative proceeds non-linearly never once going over the head. But these are just the secondary reasons that make the film stand apart. In an age which is plagued by over-sensitivity towards issues such as racism, communalism and war, films such as Waltz with Bashir (and the surprise winner Gran Torino (2008) appeal for an acceptance of these issues as it is and to deal with them without much fuss. And that is a reason enough for me to cast my vote for Waltz with Bashir.