The good news is that, despite delivering the expected frosty alienation of its namesake, Antarctica features enough sweat-laden sex scenes to thaw three meandering romantic dramedies. The crime is that the film releases the steam nearly all at once, and then thrusts us out into the cold. Writer-director Yair Hochner frontloads his picture with eroticism, hyper-kinetically depicting a weekend in the life of a retired gay dancer (the film’s most promiscuous character). There is barely audible grunting, reluctant kissing, buttons unclasping, as well as the desperate, feverish compromises of what goes where, for how long, in what order, etc., all occurring simultaneously via multiple, (astro-)gliding screens, and soberly juxtaposed with awkward morning-after conversation. The use of digital video also provides the poorly lit sex scenes a compressed, amateur raunchiness, making one feel a bit like a voyeur capturing the fluid exchange on a cellphone for private use.
This auspicious sequence is exhausting—it’s one of the rare moments in recent cinema that manages to be both indulgent and economical at the same time—and the story, much like we imagine the dancer who entertains all of male Tel Aviv in his apartment, never recovers from the fusillade of arousal. Directly after, we sprint forward three years to the film’s primary timeline and re-meet the collection of lovers in their individual social contexts. But it’s unavoidably anticlimactic to observe someone’s social fumbles after you’ve been introduced in the bedroom: What piquant vulnerability remains to be exposed? We keep waiting, perhaps unfairly, for the sexual heat to be matched by emotional provocation, rather than linked to long, barren stretches through the well-traversed tundra of relationship and career angst.
The anti-plot—buried beneath icy layers of what the filmmakers would no doubt call “character development”—concerns a shy librarian’s 30th birthday, and the orbit of a circle of friends unknowingly affiliated via three “hot spots” of activity: the dancer’s apartment (three characters are former lovers), a bar (whose proprietor is the lover of the librarian’s sister), and the library itself, where a journalist who has slept with the dancer happens to be researching extraterrestrials. But unlike the similarly surreal Venn diagram of relationships in many Robert Altman films, there aren’t many rewards to be claimed by captioning the spider graph. Antarctica is less of a story and more of an ideal thirtysomething birthday party where all guests are acquainted through various degrees of separation: Despite the bickering, the blaming, the inebriated insults and the ghastly house band, by the end of the night everyone has paired off—regardless of how predictable, implausible or unnecessarily cruel the respective couplings seem.
Still, like an accidental hellhound on the heels of three same-sex marriage bans in the United States, the film’s blithe conjugal discussion feels affirming (in Israel, gay couples enjoy common law marriage, adoption and recognition of out-of-state matrimony). One notable scene features four aging mothers bemoaning their homosexual progeny’s lack of prospective spouses. It would be a balmy conversation even on paper, but on screen one of the “mothers” is a drag queen who makes Divine look like a paragon of femininity. It’s an honorable feat that neither the cast nor the audience treats the character’s transvestism as grotesque (or burlesque). LGBT filmmakers are beginning to discover that the mediocrity of romance lulls everything into a sense of social orderliness. Normalcy, even.