If there’s still talk about Cannes 2014 lacking substantial fare voicing women’s perspectives and concerns, Shira Geffen‘s latest outing down the Croisette at the Critics’ Week sidebar should certainly help rectify matters. Dripping with black humor but never riding the mise-en-scene overwhelm its (female) characters’ humanity, Self Made uses the story of two women – one Jewish, the other an Arab – swapping lives to present what is at once an enjoyable comedy and a contemplative exercise looking at the construction of sexual identities.
With its deployment of surreal episodes to talk about gritty issues in reality, Geffen has continued (or even expanded) on the aesthetics she (and co-director) Etgar Keret have used to great effect in their Camera d’Or-winning 2007 debut Jellyfish. Self Made could easily rival Jellyfish‘s widespread festival exposure, with its convergence of lively characters, idiosyncratic narrative and thoughtful mise-en-scene making it an easy choice (up until now) as Israel’s Oscar entry. (A rival of this would probably be another Cannes sidebar entry, the divorce-drama Gett which bowed at the Directors’ Fortnight at nearly the same time on May 16.)
In what is possibly the film’s most obviously (and only) autobiographical episode, the Israeli artist protagonist Michal (Sarah Adler) finds herself having to content with a German TV interviewer’s simplistic and hackneyed questions about her views on “a chance of peace in the Middle East” – something Geffen must have contended with ever since her breakthrough Camera d’Or-winning 2007 film Jellfish. Self Made is a subversion of that: visual and textual references to the intifada – checkpoints, suicide bombers and views of “stunning” Jerusalem – it’s a film that talks about another aspect of difficulties in surviving life in modern-day Israel.
The film begins with a bizarre bang. Literally, the viewer sees an asleep Michal suddenly thrown out of her bed (and off screen); rather than the result of a bomb attack, it’s actually her bed suddenly caving in. It leaves her with a bruise on the head and the result is more internal: getting up, she finds herself forgetting the way her coffee machine works, her husband’s itinerary and her own – including a photo shoot for a Most Important Israeli Women magazine article – and, finally, even her own name.
Her ordering of a new bed from an Ikea-clone DIY furniture company would somehow intertwine her life with the film’s other protagonist: her complaint about her newly-delivered bed missing a screw leads to the dismissal of Nadine (Samira Saraya), the Arab woman charged with packing them into plastic bags.
While Michal is shown having somehow forgotten who she is, Nadine is trying her best to rebel against the mortal coil she’s given: wearing jeans and big headphones bellowing hip-hop, she is stoic at once to the humiliation meted out at border checks and also her aunt and brother’s plans in marrying her off to a rich relative in Kuwait. What Geffen is trying to put across is how an individual’s appearance is just a façade. Michal and Nadine’s tribulations are mirrored in a third character, the young female checkpoint soldier (Na’ama Shoham) whose put-up machismo being another show, as she’s also revealed as having a soft side which, when revealed, drives her to fury.
It’s because of the soldier’s brief meltdown at the border that brings about the bizarre mix-up of Michal and Nadine’s identities – with the two women suddenly led to living the other’s life. The fact that no one around them notices is perhaps the point about how it’s the inside of a human being that matters and defines herself.
The same could be said about the film: whether in its fantastical parts (the routine ID checks transformed into a visual waltz, for example) or in the brief glimpses of brutal reality in Israel’s socio-political landscape (bulldozers ready to raze Palestinian buildings), the film is all about a look into its characters’ psyche. Both Adler and Saraya delivered poised turns, their performances playing out in Arad Sawat‘s production design heightening the absurdities of life in the anxiety-ridden Israel.
With a witty screenplay which never passes on the opportunity to play with language – from Michal repeating to a range of people how she’s “missing a screw”, and the soldier describing her army’s bullets as “Israeli patent” because “it hurts but it doesn’t kill” – Self Made provides an entertaining and pensive thought about the straitjackets imposed on women or maybe just about everyone else too.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week), May 16, 2014
Production Companies: Movie Plus Productions, United King Films
Cast: Sarah Adler, Samira Saraya, Na’ama Shoham
Director: Shira Geffen
Screenwriter: Shira Geffen
Producer: David Mandil, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery
Director of Photography: Ziv Berkovich
Production Designer: Arad Sawat
Editor: Nili Feller
Music: Amit Poznansky
Sales: Westend Films
In Hebrew, Arabic and French
No rating; 89 minutes