Israeli Film Good But Not Great

Winner of the Camera d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Jellyfish follows a week in the life of three separate young women in Tel Aviv and how each of them eventually connects to the sea.

First we meet Batya, who lives alone in a leaking apartment, and works in a deadend job as a wedding reception waitress. On one of her rare days off, she unexpectedly discovers a nymph of a girl coming out of the ocean. Since the child is apparently abandoned, and the police are unwilling to get involved, Batya decides to look after this virtually mythical girl—an eccentric child who never speaks and whose hair inexplicably never dries.

Noa Knoller as Keren in JellyfishKeren is a young bride (at whose reception Batya served) who breaks her leg trying to exit a locked bathroom at the reception. Consequently, the newlyweds are forced to trade their Caribbean honeymoon for a room in a cheesy sea-side hotel, where they meet a sultry, wealthy woman occupying the hotel’s only suite.

The last character with whom we become acquainted is Joy, an English-speaking Filipino immigrant who works as a caretaker, sending money to her son, anticipating a joyful reunion with him as soon as she has earned enough to provide for them. Despite her expertise with children, she is continually assigned to care for elderly people. Even worse, her newest client is a curmudgeonly old lady who only speaks German and Hebrew—and who takes an immediate dislike to Joy, without even attempting to understand her. As their relationship begins to take shape, however, they begin to discover that they share more than either would have anticipated.

Directed by celebrated Israeli author Etgar Keret and his wife, screenwriter Shira Geffen, Jellyfish taps into the apparently “insignificant” moments in life where we can choose to pursue a life of either misery, or a life of joy. The filmmakers use unexpected encounters and missed opportunities to bring to light the ways we move toward or away from relationship and self-discovery.

Not surprisingly, the sea becomes a metaphor for life—even though the beach is “full of dog droppings and stinging jellyfish,” as Joy’s patient grumbles, the sea is also beautiful, hopeful, and despite it all, reliable; yet the existential angst that hovers over the characters still threatens to overtake them like a tidal wave.

In general I’m a sucker for films following different narratives with characters who barely overlap with each other. I enjoy the anticipation, the revelation of how the stories intertwine and what fruit will ultimately be borne. While Jellyfish is an admirably crafted film, I sensed that the characters required not only more space, but more story, in order to develop into sympathetic characters that I would care about. The only exception is Joy, whose trials as an immigrant are evocative and believable, all while maintaining a subtlety that keeps her from becoming the stock immigrant. Instead, she is a three-dimensional wage-worker, doing her best to make her way in the world as well as offer hope and pleasure to her young son.

While the film tries to capture whimsy and mystery, particularly in the character of the little ocean girl, it never quite makes it out of its shell and into the hopefulness it wants to impart. In what is often the Achilles heel of new filmmakers (as are Geffen and Keret), they aim for “deep and meaningful,” but wind up trying so hard that the film falls all over itself. I do not deny that the film is a worthy effort, as was proved at Cannes. Unfortunately, though, I found it ultimately unsatisfying.

Jellyfish is not rated; there is mild language, a “mildly violent” bus accident, and mature subject matter, but no nudity or sex. The film is subtitled.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jennie attended a press screening of Jellyfish.