This review was originally published July 28th, 2008.
An unkempt woman sits by herself on the beach, both physically and emotionally alone. Her only companion is the endless ocean, but it is the perfect one. And then a little girl appears, wearing only a red and white inner tube, walking out of the waves like Neptune’s daughter herself. Her striking blue eyes are intensely innocent, and damp red ringlets surround a cherub’s face. She stops next to the woman, saying nothing, only staring unblinkingly. The woman looks back, confused and amazed and wondering. Then she stands up, turns to leave, and the watery nymph follows her.
It is a moment of astonishing beauty and it took my breath away when I saw it. Jellyfish is a film filled with such moments. The directorial debut of husband-wife team Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, it is nearly impossible to adequately describe. I could say it deals with three very different women in Israel – Batia (Sarah Adler), a catering waitress, Keren (Noa Knoller), newly married, and Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Fillipino caretaker – whose lives all intersect early in the film at Keren’s wedding, but that isn’t what Jellyfish is about. I could tell you that the plot entails Batia attempting to discover where the little girl’s parents are, but that is only a fraction of the film. Perhaps it is the story of Keren and her husband discovering that married life will not solve all of their problems like they thought it would…but no, no, that isn’t it at all.
Jellyfish is not about story or plot, and sometimes it isn’t even about character. It weaves an ephemeral, delicate mood that is at once sublime and lonely and surreal and hopeful and inexplicable and tender and tragic. Moments like the one above are sprinkled throughout the film: Batia tips her head back and opens her mouth underneath a ceiling leak; Keren draws the outline of a bottle around a cruise ship on a brochure; Joy discovers her elderly ward has passed away while a fundraising commercial for the poor and downtrodden plays on television; a toy boat, lost and then found, wordlessly knits two strangers together in tears; a police officer folds a missing persons report into the shape of a boat and blows it across the table with the words, “Lost at sea.” The film’s delicate magic (located in these scenes and others), which I am utterly failing to do justice to, is intoxicating.
While not an identical twin, Jellyfishcould be a close sibling to Lost in Translation, another film about isolation that played out in the moments between the plot rather than in the plot itself. The three women here, like Scarlett Johanson and Bill Murray, are cut off from meaningful human contact, islands in a sea of superficiality. Their romantic relationships are broken. Their parents care more about others than about their own children. Their employers, intent on the status quo, fire them. They are adrift, washing up along the shore like flotsam and jellyfish. One crotchety character, when asked if she would like to go to the beach, indirectly sums up the world’s attitude towards their plight: “What’s on the beach besides dog sh*t and jellyfish?” Each is metaphorically lost in a solitary ocean, but each is also physically drawn to the sea, in different ways but for the same reason: it’s comforting to gaze into the face of something more endless than your own loneliness.
When Batia asks to see a friend’s old Super-8 home movies, the friend begs off, insisting that they’re boring: “There’s no plot development.” “I don’t like developments,” Batia replies. It’s as good a description of Jellyfish as any. I do not know how to recommend this film to you, only to say that when I sat down to watch it, I wasn’t expecting much, but by the end I was positively spellbound. If you’re willing to embrace it, Jellyfish is a cinematic experience unlike any other.