Of course, it would follow that an Israeli filmmaker would center his films mostly around dichotomies, doubles, and impasses. Popular gay filmmaker Eytan Fox, whose previous two films, "Yossi and Jagger" and "Walk on Water," enjoyed healthy limited-run success in the U.S., returns with "The Bubble," and again proves that his strengths lie in establishing tender, fraught human relationships within volatile settings. Fox has a sharp ear and an open heart, and his characters' interactions are never less than believable, their struggles plainspoken and heartrending. Yet in shuttling these fragile souls through stock tragic frameworks, he sometimes undermines them, both personally and politically; though "The Bubble" makes for a mostly impassioned liberal plea, Fox's need to spin its central gay romance into a star-crossed present-day "West Bank Story" leads him to fall into some unnecessary stereotyping. Which is unfortunate since there's so much loveliness in "The Bubble."
Fox paints his political romance with broad strokes, yet he's undeniably keyed in to his characters' sexual energy. Even in the opening scene, in which an Israeli checkpoint soldier asks a group of Palestinian men to lift their shirts in order to reveal whether they're carrying contraband across the border, there's a fleeting yet unabashed erotic surge, especially when checkpoint guard Noam (Ohad Knoller) glimpses the bare, flat midriff of crossing Arab Ashraf (Yousef "Joe" Sweid). Though barely a meet-cute (the moment is interrupted by a Palestinian woman falling into violent labor), Noam and Ashraf meet again in Tel Aviv and begin a romance as physically frank as it is emotionally wary; with pent-up, necessarily closeted sexual frustration, Ashraf abruptly initiates the first kiss, yet with the foreknowledge that their affair can't be anything greater than a short-term across-the-border fling.
Of course, the two men fall harder for each other; smartly Fox doesn't use a foreboding atmosphere at this point, letting their relationship play out in wonderfully paced, naturalistic sequences that focus more on daily life in Tel Aviv among its twentysomethings, blinded to a certain extent by their liberal do-gooding. Perhaps even more essential to the relative success of "The Bubble" is its well-developed portrait of a modern, Westernized hipster culture (of which Fox refreshingly does not condescend to) awkwardly jutting out of a political quagmire. Embodied by Noam's two roommates, the brash, sexually confident straight girl Lulu (Danielle Wircer) and the gay, charmingly neurotic Yali (Alon Friedmann), who's nursing a crush on Noam, Tel Aviv is meant to be the film's titular bubble, airy, fragile, and vulnerable to the slightest outside force.
Yet while Fox maintains a pleasurable, studied look at sexually liberated, relatably modern Jews, his depiction of Ashraf's family (his sister is marrying a extremist Hamas leader) teeters on the edge of political opportunism. And by engaging Noam and Ashraf in a narrative of escalating crises, Fox necessitates an ending that, however much it reaches for tragic liberal resonance, revivifies some noxious stereotypes about Palestinians. Fox's conclusion feels at once shocking and completely telegraphed, and it proves that he cares more about putting his characters through impossible situations than letting them figure out their problems for themselves. This sort of narrative desperation is clearly a result of living amidst such violence, yet one wonders how great "The Bubble" could have been if Fox had freed Noam and Ashraf, and likewise the immensely appealing actors Sweid and Knoller, from his overly schematized narrative traps.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]