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An indescribably delicious film

Times Movie Critic

Seductive AND intoxicating, playfully surreal and inexplicably moving, “Jellyfish” is almost impossible to pin down or even categorize. Artistic, daring, surprising, it resists fitting into words at all.

That’s ironic because its Israeli co-directors, Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen (who jointly won Cannes’ coveted Camera d’Or for best first film for “Jellyfish”), live lives that revolve around the very particular use of words.

Geffen, who did the screenplay, is a creator of plays and children’s books, while Keret, her directing and life partner, is one of Israel’s hottest contemporary authors, a humanist as well as a mischievous absurdist described by Salman Rushdie as “completely unlike any writer I know.” One of his singular short stories was turned into the independent success “Wristcutters,” and a new collection, “The Girl on the Fridge,” including a tale about a woman who crazy-glues her feet to the ceiling, is due out this month.

“Jellyfish’s” story of three women and their loosely connected lives is both part of a remarkable renaissance for Israeli cinema and apart from it.

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On the one hand, it couldn’t be more different in tone from the wave of intensely dramatic films, such as “Beaufort,” “Broken Wings,” “Late Marriage” and “The Syrian Bride,” that have impressed moviegoers worldwide.

But all these films, including “Jellyfish,” come from the same place, from a society in crisis where things are not going as planned, where, as the directors explain in a filmmakers’ statement, people may be “under the illusion that they can design their own destinies but the reality is that they wander like jellyfish, without being able to exercise any form of control over their lives.”

“Jellyfish” introduces its trio of protagonists in the most casual way possible, as the camera all but randomly focuses on them at a big Tel Aviv wedding reception. Both at this party and afterward, these characters don’t know the others exist, but the audience observes them more or less bumping into each other in ways only we are aware of.

Batya (Sarah Adler) is as close as “Jellyfish” gets to an actual protagonist. A young woman whose haphazard life is noticeably falling apart, barely able to function as a waitress at the reception, Batya ends up taking care of a sweet but willful 5-year-old girl who runs up to her out of the sea but refuses to talk.

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Also ending up with unexpected communication difficulties are Keren (Noa Knoller) and Michael (Gera Sandler), the happy couple at the wedding Batya is working. But after a freak occurrence hampers Keren’s mobility, the couple’s projected Caribbean honeymoon deteriorates into psychological chaos.

Having the most trouble communicating is Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipino woman who in fact speaks no Hebrew, only English. She’s voluntarily separated herself from her young son back home in order to work as a caregiver in Israel, filling in for people who are too busy to deal with their own lives. Her charges are invariably uber-cranky old women such as Malka (Zharira Charifal), whose daughter is appearing in a hyper-modern production of “Hamlet.”

Though it doesn’t make a big deal of it, “Jellyfish” is enlivened by moments of what could be called Israeli magic realism. A photo album comes to life, a young couple talk in front of a beautiful sky that turns out to be an enormous truck, a policeman makes a toy boat out of an official report and blows it across his desk. This is a world where anything can happen, and often does.

Many of the characters in “Jellyfish” seem part of a new Israeli lost generation that has to deal with frustrations, missed opportunities and the elusive nature of happiness, with the difficulties of forming meaningful human connections in a chancey, chaotic time.

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Yet if this sounds downbeat, the pleasure of “Jellyfish” is that it is anything but glum. Like Keret’s short stories, the film has a sense of the genial absurdity of life, a whimsical appreciation of the inescapable randomness of our anything-can-happen existence, of how fragile yet resilient are the bonds that draw people together.

Underlying “Jellyfish’s” sense that the world is a more remarkable place than we may imagine is its willingness to embrace surrealism as a story element. Working with a remarkable sureness of touch, the film’s directors understand that what’s imaginary and what’s real can be made to look exactly the same on film, and that what makes logical sense is less important than deeper emotional truth. Yes, “Jellyfish” says, it’s a wonderful life, not in that old-fashioned style we’ve perhaps tired of but in a surprising new and magical way all its own.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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“Jellyfish.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Playing at Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, One Colorado in Pasadena, Town Center in Encino.


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