The life aquatic — in Israel


War and its implications are the first things one tends to associate with Israeli cinema, perhaps because those kind of films are the ones that make it to the film festivals and get international releases (most notable are the works of director Amos Gitai).

“Jellyfish” is a welcome respite from this: a dazzlingly stylish urban fable set in Tel Aviv, the city is shown here as an oasis lit by soft, unobtrusive sunrays and made peaceful by a rambling beach. Nimbly sidestepping the issues of history, religion and politics, filmmakers Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen concentrate on small, poetic details of people’s lives, that have, in varying degrees, been damaged by a lack of real intimacy.

Keret and Geffen are both highly-respected authors who have recently branched out into cinema. Interestingly, they rely less on words than carefully crafted visuals to move the story along, while their characters are anything but verbose, having trouble actually communicating.

The opening scene shows Batya (Sarah Adler) standing dejectedly against a stark, blue background as her boyfriend (Jonathan Gurfinkel) is about to exit out of her life. He asks petulantly if she won’t make a last-ditch plea to save their relationship, but she hardly seems awake. Then he moves out of the frame, we hear the sound of a car door shutting, and the background turns out to be the moving van that’s transporting him away from her. It’s only when the vehicle has gone that she says into the cloud of dust: “Stay, don’t go.”

Director Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen
Run Time 82 minutes
Language Hebrew, English, French

On the other side of town, Galia (Ilanit Ben-Yaakov) hires Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipina domestic worker, to pick her cranky, aging mother Malka (Zaharita Harifai) up from the hospital, an arrangement that Malka abhors. But Galia is too absorbed in herself and work (she’s playing Ophelia in a local production of “Hamlet”) to dispense much time or attention to what her mother may be feeling.

Also, we have a young newlywed couple who are forced to change their honeymoon plans from the Caribbean to the local beachfront when the bride, Keren (Noa Knoller), breaks her leg trying to climb over a locked toilet door during their wedding reception. Her husband, Michael (Gera Sandler), tenderly carries her to their hotel room, but the small, solitary window opens onto a parking lot — hardly romantic.

When he tries to negotiate a better room, but is told that all the rooms are fully booked. He meets a poetess (Bruria Albeck) on the fire escape, who offers to exchange her suite for their double. Hearing about the encounter, Keren accuses Michael of having a bit of a postwedding fling with the inexplicably generous woman.

All these lives are gently intertwined like loose knots of yarn, the narrative structured in a way that recalls Haruki Murakami or Raymond Carver. Batya works in a wedding hall where Keren and Michael had their reception, and Joy was one of the guests who had been there with another client. Keren, isolated in her hotel room, seems to know certain lines of the poetess’ latest verse without having met her.

There are no defining events that link them together, though, and they drift through the story and swim and slither in and out of each other’s lives in the manner of sea creatures from which the movie gets its title.

Keret and Geffen says in the production notes that the people of Tel Aviv go to the beach to sort out their problems or to get away from Israeli politics — this is certainly true of the people in “Jellyfish” who are inexorably drawn to the beach and, even when they’re not, are clutching something that symbolizes their state of minds: Batya is obsessed with an old photo of an ice-cream seller who had been walking on the sand the day her parents had a horrific fight and subsequently divorced; Joy is heartbroken over having to miss her small son’s birthday on the other side of the globe and buys a gift of a toy ship to send to him, cradling it in her arms like a bulky talisman; Michael frequently leaves Keren in their room to smoke and stare at the ocean from the rails of the fire escape, unsure of what to say or how to treat his new wife.

The most memorable aquatic metaphor comes in the form of a little girl (Nicole Leidman) who suddenly emerges from the sea like an unlikely mermaid, clad in nothing but panties and an inner tube around her waist. The girl latches onto Batya and winds up in her apartment, where there’s a leak in the ceiling.

There’s a beautiful moment when the child stands under the leak with her mouth open, drinking, still wearing the inner tube that she refuses to take off. Of all the people in the film, the girl alone is perfectly content, seemingly with no necessity for relationships except to the sea. When she disappears, Batya is much more shaken than when her boyfriend left, and her sense of loss permeates the story like a jellyfish sting: brief but electric in pain, mindful of the fragility and vulnerability of existence.