The Mary Sue at TIFF: Dégradé and A Tale of Love and Darkness
I had an interesting first timer’s experience at TIFF this week, watching two films back-to-back (although not intentionally) about the tensions of Israel and Palestine, past and present, and the women who experience the emotional devistation of living through it. Politically, A Tale Love and Darkness, an Israeli historical drama, and Dégradé, a Palestinian black comedy, will certainly be divisive, but thematically, the social commentary make these two films compliment each other surprisingly well.
Natalie Portman’s debut film as a a writer-director, a Tale of Love and Darkness, is impressive and reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky, particularly the way Portman presents the dreams and fables her character, a mother from Poland who came to Israel during World War II. She delights in telling her child stories to teach and thrill him. Her child narrates the film as an old man, reminding us that this is based on a memoir by Amos Oz. One area where Portman excels remarkably well is her ability to make the story seem like something told from Amos’s perspective. Not only is he retelling the story of the mental breakdown and ultimate suicide of his mother, but there is a sense that he is doing so in order to make sense of these formative events in his life.
Tying these family experiences to the times before, during, and after Israel was named a Jewish state makes for an interesting historical place-marker, especially when considering the life (and limitations) afforded women and mothers at this time. And the way it shows the absolute confusion of these larger political ideas (and trying to understand the cause of tension between Arabs and Jews) is told alternatively from a child’s perspective or old man’s perspective first exposed to such darkness as a child. From playing with a little Arab girl until being forced away because of an accidental injury, to the “fun” of being a forager during war time, Portman really does understand how to tell this very adult coming of age story from a child’s perspective and limited understanding. And Portman is excellent at playing mother Fania, whose mental state may or may not have anything to do with world events. Were these the events which drove her down, or was she predisposed physically (or was there something medically wrong no one knew)? We never know…and it may not even be important to her son. But because she has to play with such open ended ideas of mental illness and depression, she has to give her own respectful interpretation.
I have to admit I didn’t love A Tale of Love and Darkness. It feels like a film which might even get trimmed before receiving a theatrical release. But is remarkably well made film which also manages to feel deeply intimate and empathetic to this part of history and real-life family’s story. That empathy towards the citizens whose daily lives are so intimately and regularly impacted is also present in Dégradé, although the movie is more focused on the daily, gritty lives of individuals.
The women in the film are as wide a spectrum of diversity in such a small place one could imagine, although all clearly following the rules that in public, and in the company of men, women must be covered. In the privacy of beauty shops however they are free not only to take off their covers and expose their heads and arms to other women, but to talk about their lives in ways they may not with their husbands or fathers. There are the friends, one very conservative in dress and behavior, the other a loud mouth (often both the comic relief and giving voice to the film’s political and social ideas). There is also the bride with her mother and future mother-in-law. The soon-to-divorce woman being waxed by a distracted employee, constantly on the phone with her gangster boyfriend. The immigrant mother from Russia with her young daughter. The divorced business woman who seems to know no one in this crazy place and is happy to stay uninvolved. And the sisters, one of whom is pregnant, the other about to get engaged.
As you might expect, there are certain soapy, predictable elements of the film which are more troublesome and melodramatic than they needed to be. For example, as soon as a pregnant woman walks in, you know she’ll be in labor by the end of the film (kind of like Chekov’s gun for female ensemble movies). And you know the dysfunctional relationship between the waxer and gangster won’t end well.
But there are other, more everyday events which really are compelling; the lack of electricity in the city of Gaza, frustration with the police, and very identifiable awkwardness that comes from having someone doing such an intimate service job. In fact, these were the scenes I found most compelling to watch, especially watching the difference between the abusive woman towards the waxer, and the more agreeable but still uncomfortable balance between service and friendly face.
Including these scenes show an understanding of dynamics which is so often missing with films which aim (but sometimes miss) to have big political ideas. And it is why the directing debut of twin brothers Tarzan and Arab Nasser feels like such a find…because they aren’t just telling a story about women as a gimmick, they seems genuinely interested in observing and understanding the most intimate moments of their lives.
Both films are essentially dedicated to mothers; the Nasser brothers dedicate this to their own, just as Amos Oz wrote his memoir for his. Both look at motherhood in a specific time and place, and relish the opportunity to share their secret lives, which they have to hide from the public lives of men. By telling these stories about unrest by looking at the women affected, it shows an understanding of how these big, complicated battles are affecting how they live their lives differently to accommodate and adapt. Both films are shining a light on events that have such large, political ramifications, by looking at people rarely considered anything more than casualties…which makes these flawed but worthy films worth seeking out when they are finally in theaters in the future.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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