The Orthodox Jewish world of Eyes Wide Open could have been set in any other place than its story locus of Jerusalem, for we never see a single recognizable sign of the city at the heart of three religious traditions. And yet everything Jerusalem represents to a traditional Jewish man is keenly felt and observed in this stirring and deeply affecting story of two men who fall in love in contemporary Israel.
Haim Tabakman makes his feature film debut with this testament to the crossroads of passion and faith. The story is hardly new: we have seen many many instances of forbidden love playing itself out in inevitable story arcs. Avoiding the predictable is the true challenge of this kind of tale and somehow Tabakman manages to do it, by staying close to the dilemma of character: Aaron, the butcher whose story is told in the film, sees his passionate attachment to Ezri, the young drifter whom he takes under his wing and allows to sleep in the upstairs storeroom, as a challenge by God. "You are a masterpiece" he says to his lover when same is still just his apprentice but the mutual attraction has been made clear to them both. In a theological exercise among rabbis in a study group, Aaron explains that that which is most challenging to us - is also something we enjoy. A faithful person takes on what is hard in order to embrace the task of remaining close to God. What Aaron does not anticipate in his journey, is that embracing the challenge can also be a way to finding the beauty of God's creation.
And Yeshiva-expelled Ezri is a beautiful man indeed: it is not hard to understand why anyone would resist him. His soulful search for truth, and his passionate understanding of his true self walk hand in hand with his unquestionable identity as a good (at heart) Jewish man. Yet he never appears to experience the crisis of identity that Aaron has over his own nature. He accepts both equally: he is Jewish, he is gay; and he equally accepts the hardship ahead of him. In some ways, he more realistically embodies Aaron's theological value than Aaron, who is too steeped in the cultural traditions of family and community life to be able to free himself accordingly. When the predictable confrontation occurs near the end of the film between Aaron and his rabbi, we hear him say, "I was dead. And now I'm alive." Living out the Jewish law (which is unforgiving on this issue) had shut down his most vital self without his even knowing it. Living out his love for Ezri wakes up that which can never be allowed to truly live openly, if the law is the only guide for life.
Tabakman walks this line carefully, without ever slipping into perspectives that might make it easier for the audience: the evil religious authorities, the innocent lovers. Both sides are complex in this drama. We feel slightly uncomfortable about the lovemaking that occurs in the room where Aaron's father has only recently died, but at the same time, those love scenes are some of the most tenderly and caringly observed expressions of love we would want to see in a film (while not particularly graphic). Lying in each other's arms, their beauty as lovers is not lost on us either - the sense that they absolutely belong together. The open spring in a desolate landscape, in which they first recognize their attraction for each other (in a non-sexual scene) is both the context and the conclusion of this love story. The spring of life, which both heals and renews, represents eternal spirituality, which lives on in love, as in life.
Partir, the film I saw next, is Catherine Corsini's attempt to deal with exactly the same dilemma but this time among a man and a woman from different social states. Kristen Scott Thomas plays the wife of a prominent businessman and politician in Nimes, who falls in love with the Spanish builder who is renovating her home to include the office where she will resume her practice of physiotherapy. She is a woman also at a crossroads, who needs to return to a sense of self somehow lost as she raised her two now-teenaged children. An accident gives birth to their romance.
Corsini handles this passion with affecting truth: as with Eyes Wide Open, we completely understand why these two people are together, even while their entire lives surrounding them both, do not easily allow this relationship. Suzanne and Ivan(Sergi Lopez) are drawn together through unquestionable desire, but as the film's progressive challenges to their relationship bring them into ever more perilous circumstances, the film avoids the cliche of that lust crumbling and instead gives an interesting portrait of two people deepening their love and reasons for attachment. They become more committed to each other in the best sense, as their lives unwind, than they were at the start. Each has become a better person in loving the other even as they are slowly driven to desperate acts.
In the press notes for this film, Kristen Scott Thomas describes her reasons for taking the movie, which included working with Corsini, and cinematographer Agnes Godard. She also thought the story described the stories of people she knew. Recently divorced herself when she shot the film, it continues a journey of recent films in which she explores and deepens a range of expressive emotion we have only seen controlled and hinted at til now. Last year's extraordinary Il y a longtemps que je t'aime offered her a chance to showcase that hybrid ability: controlled surface, brewing emotion. In Partir, she moves from one to the other, instead of playing both at the same time. It is a lesser performance than last year's but she is no less fascinating to watch as she continues to exercise and develop her own gifts. There are moments in which she has breathtaking mastery of her craft, such as when she attempts to sell her own jewellery to women in a gas station, in order to raise the cash to get her and her new family home.
The problem with the film comes in its scenario - the ending does not work and utterly fails the film. It takes the nuance of desperation in character to a particular choice that seems both unrealistic and disproving of the very development of self-understanding that has also occurred by then. It is not only disappointing, it brought bad laughter in the screening I was in, which until then had seemed to be going well. There are uneven places elsewhere in the movie as well, but a strong ending would have allowed me to dismiss those concerns. Instead, it only highlighted them, even while I was mesmerized by the leading lady.