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AFI Fest 2012 Everybody’s Got Somebody…Not Me and Not in Tel Aviv

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AFI Fest 2012: Everybody’s Got Somebody…Not Me and Not in Tel Aviv

“We never love someone. We just love the idea we have of someone.” Those words from poet Fernando Pessoa are surely ones that Alejandra (Andrea Portal) is familiar with, though she might be loath to admit their truth. Everybody’s Got Somebody…Not Me, the debut feature from Mexican writer-director Raúl Fuentes, follows Alejandra’s turbulent affair with high schooler María (Naian Daeva), whose schoolgirl-in-sunglasses vibe hints at the shades of Lolita undergirding the story. For her part, Alejandra is in that vein of Nabokovian intellectual, a highly cultured literary editor and an aesthete who contemplates María as one would a roughly hewn art object: full of life and energy, but waiting to be refined. Their relationship is defined by its contrasts: Alejandra busts out her portable CD player in a Wendy’s to listen to the Cure and still uses a paper address book when she has a perfectly workable cellphone. María is, of course, a teenager.

The film gingerly navigates its display of sexuality. One of the earliest moments is of the pair groping and pawing at each other in the front seat of a car, the camera lingering and voyeuristic. But once it’s past that overture, the film plays with subtler evocations of the erotic. There’s an electric scene with the two of them putting on makeup, their looks to each other captured by intense alternating close-ups, their discussion of color playing counterpoint to the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. That aesthetic choice gives greater weight to the film’s precise, rectilinear compositions, its arrangement of shapes and lines and forms, and it also aligns us closer to Alejandra’s perception. Wouldn’t this be the way that she sees the world?

It’s important that the sensuality of those scenes is also framed by Alejandra’s didacticism. She’s teaching María how to put on makeup—giving what she believes to be life lessons. The film never gets so freewheeling as to abandon awareness of the uneasy, imbalanced nature of Alejandra and María’s relationship. “You talk like you’re my mom and you’re not,” María intones at one point, though Alejandra’s persona is less maternal and more professorial. She’s an endless font of critical judgments, references, and quotations that invade the film through intertitles, and a scene in which the lovers meet cute via definitional dithering over the meaning of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave would make a film theorist swoon. That whole framework is accompanied by a soundtrack with a precision to match the visuals, dense with songs that seem curated to bolster Alejandra’s—and the film’s—intellectual-cultural cachet.

That kind of meticulous curation is a dangerous line to walk lest the film seem like merely an excuse for Fuentes to photograph beautiful women and show the world how educated he is. (Though I’m sure there are some who would argue that’s precisely the function of the cinema.) What steers the film decisively away from that is Portal’s finely balanced performance. Her chemistry with Daeva is palpable, but more importantly she teases out the layers of personality needed to make the character study worth studying. At times there’s that slumped, sad-sack withdrawal, the eyes-down mumbling of someone who’s far too much inside her own head—and at others, she wields a critical sharpness, a squelched fire that explains why someone would be drawn to her in the first place. And the space between the two is where the film finds the tumult and the fracture points of the relationship.

Maybe it’s all a game to her. We can never be quite sure because Fuentes and Portal let us in just enough to raise questions without providing easy answers, putting into practice Alejandra’s lesson that “you wear makeup so that the most beautiful in you is not at anyone’s reach.” At one point she’s called out by someone who claims to see right through her, that she loves “sweet-talking young girls about Foucault.” Like any intellectual worth their salt, Alejandra advances a counterargument not on the premises (yes, she likes girls, and yes, she likes talking about Foucault), but on the synthesis, that she’s not the kind of person who does that. But from the look in her eyes, and after the time we’ve spent with her, we might read it as a case of the lady doth protest too much.

And if one were to try to schedule a double feature of “blond high school girls getting into trouble in black and white,” Not in Tel Aviv, from Israeli writer-director Nony Geffen, a fragmented dark comedy, would fit the bill at least. Geffen also stars as Micha, a figure decidedly less sympathetic than Alejandra; he’s a high school teacher whose response to being fired is to kidnap one of his students at gunpoint. Possessed by a vaguely scummy narcissistic autism, Micha spends most of the film brooding and generally being a jackass to his hostage Anna (Ya’ara Pelzig), who doesn’t really have a compelling reason to stick around as Micha does a rather poor job with the whole hostage-taking thing.

The only reason, then, seems to be that Anna sticks around to make the film work, which is also the reason that Nony (Romi Aboulafia), a waitress who’s also Micha’s longtime crush, joins the group. Its nouvelle vague logic—that is, nonsensical logic—and it carries the same kind of lapsing goofy randomness that pops up in early Truffaut and Godard, but here it’s without the charm. Geffen’s assembly of the trio is only one of a number of riffs on Band of Outsiders; there’s not one but two musical interludes, neither of which is likely to be as iconic as the dancing of Anna Karina and company. In cycling through a series of absurdly premised episodes revolving around Micha’s disintegrating life, the film does admittedly wring laughs from the characters’ expressive reaction shots, especially when juxtaposed against Micha’s glower power.

But the interest generated by its low-rent cobbled-together vibe—in the way setups are left without payoff and scenes seem to spool out until the actors get bored with them, and then keep going until they’re interested again—can only carry the film so far. Beyond that, what’s left is trying to figure out what we’re doing following a misanthrope like Micha, something that’s complicated by the nature of director Geffen’s self-insert. It’s certainly not a Woody Allen-esque psychoanalytic turn, a film as neurotic self-scrutiny; Micha is too opaque and unnatural for something like that to work. Yet there’s a hardness, a coldness to the character that would be potentially interesting if the film didn’t try to continuously undercut it with the kind of self-deprecation that’s not really self-deprecating but navel-gazing—and in fact we get a literal dose of that when we linger on a shot of Micha’s belly right before his big sex scene.

As one of the random slices of “what the hell” that screening Q&As sometimes end up becoming, an audience member characterized Micha as “living the dream.” I’m not exactly sure what kind of dream involves forced unemployment, euthanasia, and having zero affect, but it does speak to the kinds of indulgence at play in the film. The cinematic forebears that Geffen tries to follow were similarly indulgent, to be sure, but in the middle of all that, their sense of free play—with the digressive breaks, the thick-and-thin narrative, the way the characters were pulled along and pulled together by the power of genre—was wide enough to encompass the audience. If they were going to live the dream, it was one they were going to share with others. Geffen doesn’t want to do that here, which would be fine if he were clear on what he’s actually doing.

 

Not in Tel Aviv

AFI Fest runs from November 1—8. For more information, click here.