One of the great things about the broad-based programming of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is that it gives us an opportunity to pick up a lot of films that slipped through our Cannes net, and one such title was “Self Made.” The sophomore feature from Israeli director Shira Geffen, who won the Camera d’Or in Cannes 2007 for her debut “Jellyfish," which she co-directed with her husband Etgar Keret, “Self Made” is a small but distinctive, beguiling film, which takes a central unexplained mystical event and spins the outcome in surprising real-world directions, while always maintaining an eye for the gently absurd. It’s a clever approach that allows Geffen, here also the sole credited writer, to comment directly on the intractable problems of Israeli/Palestinian and Jewish/Arab conflict, while maintaining enough allegorical distance to help the film also feel universal in its humanist character portraits. With performances strong across the board, this daring endeavor ventures into territory where many of us fear to tread, but Geffen is surefooted and steps lightly, perhaps knowing that, like her Arab protagonist, she has left enough markers always to be able to trace her way back.
Jewish Michal (Sarah Adler) is the character perhaps most roughly analogous to post-“Jellyfish” Geffen herself: a successful artist, married and regarded as a pioneering Israeli feminist, who is under pressure to deliver her new show to the Venice Biennale. When in a rather brilliant opening scene her bed breaks suddenly, she bumps her head, which causes her to start forgetting things and get muddled. This is presumably a contributing factor to the eventual conflation of her own identity with someone else’s. Arab Nadine (Samira Saraya), by contrast, is shown to have a hazy relationship to reality from the outset, a dreamy social outcast permanently listening to music and dancing by herself as she wends her way back and forth to her menial job putting screws in bags for an IKEA-style furniture retailer. And so the women connect long before they glancingly meet and long before the film’s central body-swap takes place: Michal (incorrectly) accuses the store of supplying only four screws where five were promised for her replacement bed, which causes Nadine to lose her job, precipitating her brother’s decision to send her to live with an aunt in Kuwait. And the moment around which their fate pivots is determined by a third woman, a young Israeli border guard (Na’ama Shoham) whose own personal issues manifest themselves in a hard-ass, suspicious exterior; Nadine’s headphone cord looks like a bomb wire to her.
If there is a recurring image comparable to that of the sea in “Jellyfish,” it is the probably concrete, joyless artificiality of the checkpoint that Nadine crosses daily, unhesitatingly submitting to its various indignities, until after another misunderstanding she is deposited in a holding yard that resembles, more than anything, a sheep pen or a bunker. It’s there that she is joined, briefly, by Michal, and from there they each emerge as befuddled but gradually acclimating versions of each other, their acceptance of their new roles aided by that fact that no one else seems to have noticed anything amiss. Other signifiers pop up time and again too: an unexplained bunch of flowers is delivered long before we see it being bought; the flat-pack furniture giant’s boxes and trucks reappear at regular intervals; pregnancy and a woman’s relationship to her body’s capability for it are repeatedly mentioned (pre-head-trauma Michal’s next art project was apparently to be a purse made from her own womb). The playful nimbleness with which Geffen threads these strands together, only to unravel them and replait them in a different configuration, is much of the film’s pleasure–that and Geffen’s way with a strikingly surreal or absurdist image, which always keeps proceedings from tipping into heavy-handedness or polemic.
In fact, it’s perhaps the film’s only disappointing element that its twisty high concept, playing on the trappings of the body-swap genre, teases a neatness that is never really delivered. Part of the intrigue with this sort of thing is in mentally working out the knots, unkinking the twisty plot into some semblance of chronology and logic, if only as a thought experiment. But here the identity shifts and time-loops resisted our attempts to render the plot’s switcheroos more linear, and as it becomes increasingly apparent that that sort of resolution ain’t going to happen, the film loses a little of its hold. It leads us to a rather anticlimactic finale which winds down rather than ending per se: in retrospect it’s hard to see how such a story could have wrapped more tidily without sacrificing some of its vital complexity, but it also shows the heights Geffen’s film scales elsewhere that we ever even dared to hope it could.
That observation aside, the film is smart, well shot and often very funny, if always pointedly so, and Geffen maintains its tricky tone of voice with assurance. And once we leave its generic imperfections to one side we can see that its real achievement is a pretty singular one: “Self Made” revolves around a mystical turn of events but actually works to demystify and to humanize a conflict and a political situation so fraught that we can easily forget that there are real people, in all their gloriously idiosyncratic everyday-ness, at the heart of it. [B]