'Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club': Film Review

Courtesy of Rock Salt Releasing
A deliciously droll and macabre feminist fairy tale.
6/21/2019

A women's literary club has a secret murderous agenda in Israeli director Guilhad Emilio Schenker's darkly comic horror film.

Israeli filmmaker Guilhad Emilio Schenker's debut feature is a gothic horror comedy about a women's literary society that lures men to their weekly readings with the purpose of murdering them, grinding them up into hot dogs and serving them at the local park.

Did I mention it's also a love story?

There were no spoilers in the opening paragraph, since the nefarious goings-on at the titular institution are revealed early on in the film. Aside from its novel premise, however, Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club proves a darkly witty effort that weaves insightful observations about female sexuality and aging into its provocative mix. A huge commercial success in its native country, the film is now receiving a limited theatrical release on these shores and, considering its juicy opportunities for actresses of a certain age, seems a shoo-in for an American remake.

The central character in the screenplay co-written by Schenker and Yossi Meiri is Sophie (a sublime Keren Mor), a veteran member of the club who, when first seen, is hitchhiking with her best friend Hana (Hana Laslo). The two women don't need a ride, however; they're attempting to entice a male driver to stop and then invite him to their weekly gathering so he can meet his fate.

The stakes are high, since the club, which disdains the notion of romantic love, has a "Woman of the Week" competition that awards a prize for attracting the best-looking male victim. Sophie is still shy of her 100th win, after which she will be made an exalted "Lordess" and given luxurious new accommodations. Those who don't make the cut are eventually relegated to working in the club's dreaded "Sanitation Department," a fate Sophie finds increasingly likely since she fears she's beginning to lose her looks.

Not long afterward, Hana goes missing, much to the consternation of Razia (Razia Israeli), the club's headmistress, who serves under Madam Yanekelova (89-year-old Israeli theatrical legend Lea Koenig). Hana eventually calls Sophie to let her know she's found true love and intends to run off to Paris.

This gets Sophie thinking about her own future, which makes her particularly vulnerable when she meets the handsome and younger Yoseph (Yiftach Klein, exuding sexy machismo), a potential mark with whom she quickly falls in love. She's forced to decide between her allegiance to the club and what she perceives as her last chance at happiness, even as it turns out that Yoseph has an agenda of his own and may not be who Sophie thinks he is.

Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club effectively combines elements of horror, romance, dark comedy and drama into its unique melange, with Schenker infusing the proceedings with a distinct Tim Burton-style vibe. Other than the obviously phallic symbol food into which the male victims are made, the film, which eschews explicit gore, is surprisingly subtle in its themes. Much of the emotional heavy lifting is carried by Mor, whose mostly unmoving but endlessly expressive face makes clear her character's conflicting feelings as she finds herself hopelessly smitten.

Director Schenker works wonders with his limited budget, creating an enjoyably gothic atmosphere with the help of John Yonatan Yaakoby's striking production designs and Tal Yardeni's playfully creepy musical score. And co-screenwriter Meiri deserves credit for sheer virtuosity for handling the cinematography and editing as well.

Resembling a modern-day Grimms fairy tale, the film even manages to have its cake and eat it too by combining its extreme feminist premise with a sweetly old-fashioned happy ending.

Production: Transfax Productions
Distributor: Rock Salt Releasing
Cast: Keren More, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein, Yiftach Klein, Lea Koenig, Razia Israeli
Director: Guilhad Emilio Schenker
Screenwriters: Guilhad Emilio Schenker, Yossi Meiri
Producers: Marek Rozenbaum, Michael Rozenbaum, Jonathan Rozenbaum, David Betser
Director of photography: Yossi Meiri
Production designer: John Yonatan Yaakoby
Costume designer: Maya Lebovitch

Editor: Yossi Meiri 
Music: Tal Yardeni

90 minutes