The new Israeli film “Jellyfish” (2007) — co-directed by lifemates Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, and a Camera d’Or winner at Cannes — is both familiar and otherworldly. Israeli filmmakers, doubtlessly because of their particularly tense position in the world, of their society’s fervent militarization and of the question of the Palestinians, love the everyone’s-connected social-weave film, à la “Crash” (Amos Gitai has made several), bouncing amongst a variety of intersecting characters as a way to paint a portrait of the whole culture. As a sub-subgenre, it has its pitfalls, but as all of our cultures become more and more deracinative and immigrant-scrambled, it’s easy to see the idea’s allure. “Jellyfish,” fortunately, adopts the mode but maintains modesty: a mere 78 minutes long (hallelujah), the movie is sharp and poetic on particulars (somewhat like Keret’s short fiction, though Geffen is credited as the screenwriter), and is rescued from undue ambition by drop-dead bits of mundane magical realism. Most of all, it’s a woman’s film; of the roughly 12 characters, only two are men. As it is, three women dominate: Batia (the rather Islid Le Besco-ish Sarah Adler, whom Godard filmed so rapturously in “Notre Musique”), a lost waitress numb from a breakup and confronted one day at the beach with a mute five-year-old girl who simply walked out of the sea; Keren (Noa Knoller), a newlywed stuck honeymooning in a Tel Aviv dump after she breaks her ankle during her reception; and Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipino nursemaid far from home and commissioned to care for a belligerent old woman.
Confident enough to simply suggest the fantastical and never nail it down, and nervy enough to quote Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante” in the end, “Jellyfish” is rich with motifs and mysteries, and displays a sweet, patient personality. Scenes often trail off like a dozing child, and dreaminess is a given, particularly once Batia, plagued by ambivalence about her narcissistic parents, gets hit by a bus and walks the streets of the city in her hospital gown, still searching for the wide-eyed nymph in the bathing suit who disappeared when she wasn’t looking. Like Wong Kar-Wai, Keret and Geffen prioritize poetic simile and jukebox irony, a woman’s lovely suicide-note poem (“A ship inside a bottle cannot sink, or collect dust…”) and a plaintive Hebrew-ized cover of “La Vie en Rose.” But “Jellyfish” hangs together rather blissfully in the end because of its sympathetic aura, and the responsive presence of the actresses — especially Adler and De Latorre, who has a disarming way of seeming repulsed by and empathic toward the sullen Israelis around her at the same moment.
Same microgenre, different frontier: David Gordon Green’s “Snow Angels” (2008) limns out a community at the other end of the sensibility scale, namely snowbound North American malaise and self-destruction, played out in a low-rent suburban nowhere where the prettiest woman in town (Kate Beckinsale) waits tables at the old school, Greek-owned chow mein house, where marriages crumble like thin ice, and where the high schoolers’ lives are an aimless mix of pot haze and marching band practice. Based on Stewart O’Nan’s debut novel, the film involves three interconnected families (a faithless high school teacher, a state trooper, another waitress, plenty of old folks stuck in their aging living rooms, etc.), but focuses on Michael Angarano’s sheepish teen, and on Glenn (Sam Rockwell), a chronically jobless drunk who’s now sober, employed and fervently born again, trying to be a good Christian father to his semi-spoiled four-year-old daughter, and to get in good again with his ex-wife (Beckinsale), who harbors a lingering affection but visibly bristles at the uselessness of every man around her. Rockwell is indelible; Glenn is a complex admixture of native intelligence and sour inadequacy, go-getter energy and finally, ignorant fury.
In this kind of movie, convincing realism is 90% of the battle — we know these people, even if the story’s fire alarms feel a little forced and predictable. (Or, more precisely, feel like an unadventurously plotted debut novel that might’ve tried for Raymond Carver-ness but resorted to the conventional in ways Carver wouldn’t have.) Suffice it to say that the fragile, unhappy equilibrium suffered by the characters is eventually destroyed by tragic happenstance, after which only the acting sustains us. Beckinsale isn’t quite up to her big scenes, but Rockwell certainly is, and in smaller roles, Olivia Thirlby (as an irresistibly funky high school new-girl-in-town) and Jeanetta Arnette (as Angarano’s weathered mom) are so vivid you could think you recognize them from somewhere real. Green’s improvisational style lets actors find the right stuff, even if their back is to us when it happens, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in. Your preference for either “Snow Angels” or Green’s more recent “Pineapple Express” would say more about your temperament than about the films’ relative merits — which I think are virtually neck and neck, a dead heat between the morbid and the crispy — but either way Green is having quite the Elvis year.
[Additional photos: “Snow Angels,” Warner Independent, 2007]
“Jellyfish” (Zeitgest Films) and “Snow Angels” (Warner Home Video) are now available on DVD.