Predicated on the spectacle of functionally depressed types stuck in mildly ridiculous situations not entirely of their own making, the Israeli ensemble comedy Jellyfish—which won the Caméra d’Or last May at Cannes and was among the highlights of this year’s “New Directors/New Films”—has an emotional resonance beyond its controlled slapstick and deadpan sight gags.
A beautiful bride is trapped in a toilet stall—don’t ask—and, breaking her leg upon climbing out, is forced to relocate her honeymoon from a Caribbean dream beach to a Tel Aviv dump. (The city, which the filmmakers have creatively reconfigured, is a character, too.) A non-Hebrew-speaking, exceedingly homesick Filipina guest worker is hired to look after a particularly unpleasant old lady, who is herself longing for—while also repelling—the attentions of her equally difficult grown daughter, a would-be avant-garde diva. Batya, a klutzy yet appealing waitress (played by Sarah Adler, seen here to very different effect as a journalist in Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique), breaks up with her boyfriend and is briefly adopted by a mysterious, wide-eyed five-year-old who walks naked out of the Mediterranean. These couples (or better, coupled individuals) become estranged and reconciled in various ways and occasionally cross paths. Batya works the bride’s ill-fated wedding and subsequently lands in the same hospital as the Filipina—don’t ask.
Bleakly wistful, regarding its essentially lonely characters with a gaze both tender and lethal, Jellyfish was co-directed by the bestselling Israeli writer Etgar Keret and his wife, dramatist-director Shira Geffen (who is credited with the screenplay). As in Keret’s stories, a brusque absurdism is somewhat softened by a thin cushion of low-keyed whimsy. Actually, whimsicality taken in an existential sense may be Jellyfish‘s operating principle. The movie’s title suggests that its principles are amorphous creatures subject to the ocean’s mysterious currents. In their notes, the filmmakers describe the sea as “the only territory within the land of Israel where people can just be as they are,” unconstrained by nationality and class. But the sea is not within Israel—it’s the western border into which the nation fears it will be pushed. The sea within is just another name for the realm of the unconscious.
Jellyfish is the second Keret movie to play New York in the past six months. Opening here late last year, Wristcutters: A Love Story, adapted by Goran Dukic from Keret’s 1998 novella Kneller’s Happy Campers, gave full vent to the writer’s obsession with suicide. Although a short and not unduly sweet 78 minutes, Jellyfish is more expansive—it manages to touch on all of life’s passages, as if that’s all there was. An Israeli movie with neither politics nor religion—and only one casual, if fraught, mention of the Holocaust—bespeaks an underlying desire for normality that’s as poignant and fantastic as Keret and Geffen’s modest, shabby Tel Aviv settings.