'Stripped' ('Erom'): Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
A chaste look at intimacy.

A young Tel Aviv woman is tormented by a rape she doesn’t remember while a teenager struggles with his sexual fantasies in Yaron Shani’s ('Ajami') twin-story drama.

One of four Israeli films making their bow in Venice this year, Stripped (Erom) in the Horizons section marks the long-awaited return of Yaron Shani, who co-directed the foreign-language Academy Award contender Ajami with Palestinian director Scandar Copti. His first solo feature feels a little disappointing: sometimes touchingly on target and engrossing, at other times tripped up by labored storytelling, narrative inconsistencies and the bizarre faux-censorship of nude scenes. However, the non-pro cast is engaging and believable, reinforcing the cinema verite feeling conveyed by the realistically detailed scenes and preference for close-ups. The film’s exploration of intimacy has a peculiarly timely feel that should give the Celluloid Dreams title some chance on the art house market.

The story centers around the rape of Alice (Lativ Sivan), a creative type in her 30s whose fast-track career as an author, sculptor and filmmaker goes off the rails after the attack by an unknown intruder. Interwoven with her story is that of the 17-year-old Ziv (Bar Gottfried), a nice, clean-cut boy who wants to study music instead of being drafted into the army, while he lurches toward manhood. The film’s two-gender take on contemporary sexual politics sensitively distinguishes between performance anxiety in the male camp and the psychological shredding of an abused woman. But watching Alice’s distress spiral out of control is unpleasant, like seeing a confident, vibrant woman crumble into a victim who is unable to react or even to reason out who her aggressor is.

Like Ajami (2009), which intertwined the stories of Jews and Palestinians living in a multiethnic quarter of Jaffa, the leisurely narrative of Stripped swings back and forth between the problems of Alice and Ziv. Her three mismatched dogs are barking furiously when her boyfriend opens the door to her apartment one morning and rouses her from a deep, unnatural sleep. She has a bump on her head and a lost expression on her face, and she keeps scrubbing herself in the shower. But she remembers nothing. She tells her fiance that there was no one with her in the apartment the previous night, though this is not quite true. She begins to associate her mysterious aches and pains with a disturbing news report of a serial rapist that has been attacking women in Tel Aviv, even breaking into their apartments. Unable to brush off the suspicion that she has been raped while she was unconscious, she succumbs to paralyzing panic attacks and crying jags. Ignoring the whining dogs who need to be walked and fed, she locks herself up in the house for weeks on end, refusing to see her mother, agent or boyfriend.

Not far away lives the high schooler Ziv, who is obsessed by his passion for music. There is something a little prissy and self-protective about his attitude, however, as though music was a defense against social relationships, especially with girls. The sensitive face of Bar Gottfried, who also composed the film’s score, contrasts with his stiff body language when people try to get too close to him, like a pretty girl from school who wants to make out. He’s a virgin, like other friends of his, until he attends a wild birthday party for a schoolmate that includes two very available lap dancers. The boys’ lusty, gung-ho p.o.v. is in dangerous opposition to that of Alice and her supportive girlfriends, who work to gently nudge her out of her fears and depression.

In their best moments, the stories are credible, well-told and engrossing. But an issue that should be mentioned is the strange use of nudity in the film, which is certainly essential given that Stripped deals with the invasion of bodily privacy. There are brief shots of male and female nudity throughout the film, but breasts and genitals are whited out via an optic filter, a most unsettling effect in the context of a story meant to frankly address sexual borders. It becomes ludicrous in the stripper scenes, when even the actresses’ faces are blanked out. 

Production companies: Black Sheep Film Productions, The Post Republic, Electric Sheep
Cast: Lativ Sivan, Bar Gottfried
Director, screenwriter, editor: Yaron Shani
Producers: Saar Yogev, Naomi Levari, Michael Reuter 
Directors of photography: Shai Skiff, Nizan Lotem
Production designer: Yoav Sinai
Music: Bar Gottfried
World sales: Celluloid Dreams
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
119 minutes