Israeli ‘Jellyfish’ tells tale of three women


There is one jellyfish and one reference to the sea creature in the dreamy, darkly comic Israeli drama Jellyfish.

Winner of the Cannes’ Camera d’Or this year, this visually beautiful Israeli-French film unspools three largely-unconnected tales of women in the seaside city of Tel Aviv. We meet all three women at a wedding. Keren (Noa Knoller) is the bride, whose day of joy is capped with a broken leg that means the cancellation of her and groom Michael’s Caribbean honeymoon plans. Batya (Sarah Adler) is working the wedding as a waitress, in a rather distracted state, having just broken up with her live-in boyfriend. Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre) is a recent immigrant from the Philippines who does not speak Hebrew, working as a caretaker for elderly women but desperately missing the five-year-old son she left behind.

The resulting film is charming and the excellent photography makes it visually striking but with its ambiguities and wandering stories, it is far more likely to appeal to those whose film tastes run to art house. That said, Jellyfish is well worth the effort.

The stories do not overlap as much as just intersect obliquely. Keren and Michael (Gera Sandler) have their plans for a Caribbean honeymoon dashed after Keren gets locked in a bathroom at the noisy reception hall and breaks her ankle trying to climb over the door to escape. They end up at a seaside hotel but Keren is unhappy with the tiny room they are forced to settle for. She complains it has an unpleasant odor, an unappealing view of the street and non-stop noise. Her new husband Michael is desperate to find a new room and please his unhappy bride.

The young waitress Batya’s life is a mess. In addition to losing her boyfriend, her apartment is in disrepair, but her landlord ignores her complaints when he stops by to let her know he is raising the rent. Her mother is famous for her charitable work and her face appears on billboards around town and on TV but she is far more involved in her charitable fundraising work than concerned about her daughter. Even Batya’s boss is giving her warnings about work.

Batya takes it all with stoic stillness, but when she takes a walk on the beach to escape her troubles, she finds a beautiful five-year-old girl wearing a swim ring, apparently abandoned at the seashore. The mysterious little red-haired girl does not speak but smiles at Batya and willingly follows her to the police station. The police officer at the station tells Batya that no one from social services is available to take the girl in and asks if she can take care of her for the weekend, while the police search for her parents.

Meanwhile, Joy arrives in Tel Aviv not speaking the language but hopeful about her job taking care of an elderly woman in her home. She gets by speaking English but her sense of being dismissed as an outsider and a domestic worker sharpens her feelings of loneliness for her son back home. When her first job does not work out, she quickly finds another but both jobs give us a glimpse inside families dealing with grown children and aging parents.

Jellyfish is the directorial debut of the husband and wife team of Shira Geffen and noted novelist Etgar Keret. Although Etgar Keret is the famous novelist, Geffen wrote the screenplay for the film.

Photographically, this is a very strong film, with remarkable imagery that elevates the mundane to the artistic. The acting is very well-done, subtle and affecting. Jellyfish alternates in tone between the darkly, ironically comic to the tenderly dramatic to the surreal. This subtle, evocative film is filled with coincidental connections. Despite being rather meandering, Jellyfish is charming, a bit melancholy but also comically ironic and poignantly human.

The angelic, speechless child who appears out of nowhere, a central character, adds a surreal touch to the film, whose overarching theme is about loss and separation but is resolved by an uplifting reconnection with the humanity of others. The mysterious child is almost like a character from a fairy tale, suddenly appearing in the very everyday world of modern Tel Aviv, yet the seemly incongruous ingredient seems just right.

Those factors, plus the accessible characters, the lush photography and everyday human events, give the film its appeal. There is a strong European flavor to its dreamy style, likely the French side of this Israeli-French joint production. Yet, the film is not pretentious or heavy-handed, due to its ironic and humorous touches. On the whole, Jellyfish offers not just a look at modern Israeli life but at the universal human condition, of families and emotional connections, in a complex and compelling fashion.

Jellyfish is in English and Hebrew, with English subtitles. It opens at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema on Friday, June 20.