Jellyfish is a festival favorite, an Israeli film by husband and wife co-directors Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, whose multiple awards include the Camera d’Or (best first film) and a Screenwriting Award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The film follows three distinctive women as they struggle through their lives in modern Tel Aviv. Batya (Sarah Adler) is a catering waitress whose problems include a dissolving relationship, a soul-sucking job, a trunk full of mommy and daddy issues, and the unexpected responsibility of caring for a mute waif (Nikol Leidman) who emerges out of the sea and lands in her life. Keren (Noa Knoller) is a beautiful young bride who breaks her foot at her wedding reception—her Caribbean honeymoon is replaced by a dissatisfying stay at a local hotel. Lastly, there is the ironically named Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), an English speaking Filipino wracked with guilt because she has left her five year-old son in her native land while she scratches out a living as a personal nurse to the elderly who insist on speaking Hebrew to their uncomprehending aide.
Considering the film’s 78-minute running time, Jellyfish’s script is surprisingly dense, as each of the three protagonists is given a distinct storyline, and none of their tales feel slighted at the expense of the other. Likewise, the movie is a careful balance of the gently comic and dramatic, never straying too far to either extreme. The culturally diverse central characters live in a plausible world and in their carefully observed lives behave in ways that are consistent with their established values and beliefs. Batya’s obsession over the foundling in her charge is clearly defined by her own childhood experiences of loss, while Keren’s general dissatisfaction is nicely counterpointed by the quiet struggles of a writer staying a few floors above the honeymooners. Meanwhile, Joy’s constant struggles to find footing in a foreign land, all the while trying not to lose touch with her distant son, capably capture that character’s sense of disconnectedness and separation anxiety. This world is not designed to make these women’s lives easy, and while the film sometimes struggles to make overt their connections to the wave-tossed, existing-at-the-whim-of-fate jellyfish, and the story works a little too hard to bring the women’s stories to a satisfactory conclusion, these things do not destroy the poignancy of the resolution of each woman’s tale. Not completely, at least.
Though the film’s reach does often exceed its grasp, particularly when, near the end, Jellyfish delves into the realm of magical realism, the actors are generally capable and endearing enough that it is possible to forgive the filmmakers’ their failed ambitions. Furthermore, visually, the film is quite striking, as cinematographer Antoine Heberle has a playful style that keeps the sometimes self-conscious symbolism from getting weighted down by its own pretensions. Likewise, the film’s blue-tinged palette keeps the ocean motif ever-present, underpinning the basic sadness of the story with subtlety, and informing the film’s themes of loss (of love, childhood, identity, family) and connectedness in ways that are both graceful and touching.
If Jellyfish is lacking, it is in its unwillingness to completely contextualize the women in this contemporary setting, and in its over-reliance on narrative gimmickry. While the back story for Batya is both satisfactory and interesting, both Keren and Joy’s stories feels particularly truncated, and as a result are somewhat hamstrung by a lack of information about who they are and where they have come from. And while it is possible to see how the bourgeois world of Batya and Keren have some connection, Joy’s story seems to sit on the outside of this trio, and is never convincingly integrated with the rest of the film. As a result, it really does not serve the film well when the filmmakers keep trying to find ways to bring the three women’s stories together. Indeed, these loose and unconvincing interminglings are largely coincidental and reminiscent of the much more pretentious and serious-minded Babel. This is not a comparison that serves the film well, nor does the O. Henry-like contrivance that marks the resolution of each woman’s tale. This unfortunate straying into literary artifice runs counter to the film’s cinematic chops, which are considerable.
Jellyfish is a promising first effort, and while the awards and accolades heaped upon it might seem a tad excessive given the film’s limitations, this criticism is not meant to gloss over the film’s modest achievements.
Dan Jardine is a contributor to The House Next Door and the publisher of Cinemania.