Review: Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (2010)

“It was drek,” said the critic braying in the vestibule. She was a shrew of advanced years, the type who hasn’t laughed since the 20th century often encountered in Manhattan. She was the unwanted accessory that comes with the screening room installation kit. I didn’t know if I should try and return her to the manufacturer. Surely there was some lonely and unsmiling Tarkovsky lover who would require her. But this was not my screening room and this was not my call. I decided to stay silent.

I was baffled. Drek? Yes, Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (part of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival) was a mess, a movie with too many competing instincts. It was a film that didn’t know whether it wanted to be a study in cultural fusion, a willowy melodrama, or a comedic investigation into the many notions of Jewish identity. But then I am not of the people. I do read a lot of Jewish writers, have many Jewish friends, and am interested in Jewishness. I do seem to attract a lot of Jewish men at social gatherings, perhaps because I listen or perhaps because I have the tendency to say things that are apparently profane. Not long ago, on one of my recent interborough walks, I was alarmed when some kids called me a kyke for having the temerity to read, walk, and maintain an unruly beard (all at the same time!) as I made my way into the Meatpacking District. I suspect all this explains why I laughed a good deal over Treslove’s predicament – not Jewish, but very “Jewish” – in Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question.

Regardless of my Jewish state (or lack thereof), it is hard to say no to a movie titled Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish. The grand irony of Shakespeare being appropriated for the Jewish theater was too irresistible, particularly when one considers how Jewish culture has been appropriated. (Just consider how many Jewish songwriters have composed Christmas carols!)

I had brought along someone who was Jewish to atone for my lack of Jewishness and to prevent any mishaps. You see, the last time I had attended a New York Jewish Film Festival screening, I had been reprimanded by a publicist for violating some disclaimer in microscopic type. I had decided that I would read the press screening invite more carefully and not say a word, although I did end up cracking a few jokes to someone. (You see how easy it is for me to resist even my own imperative! I am my own apostate!)

None of this tells you much about the film. If you have a sense of humor and an open mind, I suspect that you won’t call it drek. But the film stands more of a chance (admittedly slim) with a Reform crowd than a Conservative one. For the movie contains numerous Orthodox characters who have been banned from the community. And I suspect that some of the audience will feel as if they have been banned if they laugh with the movie. Consider this belligerent blog post from The Circus Tent, which berates the characters for being “haunted by the fact that they weren’t allowed to wear metal-framed glasses nor have buckles on their belts. It shows you what their intellectual capacity consists of. The fact that they would be chosen to translate the works of Willy Shake shows us what kind of knowledge of Yiddish the directors of the project have.”

Well, that’s the point. There are some sections of the movie that appear to have been filmed in a desperate rush, with handheld cameras and muddled sound. Other parts of the movie contain a modest degree of polish, the film appearing to be comfortably financed and in an early stage of production. Then there are the portions of the film, involving some on-the-fly CGI, where the film tries too hard to be professional. For me, these wildly inconsistent visuals imbued the operation with a homespun charm. After all, if you are making a movie about the creation of dramaturgy, shouldn’t the results feel as disparate as the rehearsals? As if to pound the point home, Annenberg includes a dude who shows up at random intervals film to sprinkle literal magic into the operation. And haven’t we all seen this gentleman?

I have no command of Yiddish, so I can’t share The Circus Tent guy’s indignation. But I do hope that he’s settled down by now. In defense of the woman who damned the film as drek, I will say that some of the Shakespearean recreations aren’t inventive enough. Friar Lawrence becomes Rabbi Lawrence. The Capulets and Montagues are distinguished by peyot. Swapping the party at the end of the first act to a purim party is a mildly creative choice. But this schematic approach, while initially entertaining and probably funny on paper, becomes tedious. Still, I very much enjoyed the sacrilegious moments of Hasidic Jews engaged in a knife fight that nobody feels inclined to break up. I almost expected them to sing “from your first brit milah to your last dying day.” I should also point out that the film is quite friendly to non-Jewish viewers, providing Ken Loach-like subtitles for Jewish words. Some are obvious (“nitter” for example); others I did not know. I also enjoyed the moments where our Jewish heroes attempted to negotiate everyday situations (such as the collection of luggage) based solely upon their trust in the community. Alas, another man’s word is not enough for an unsmiling official.

Perhaps I liked the film more than I should have because its Jewish characters – apostates living in the back of a Budget Rent-A-Car truck – were outsiders with a healthy calmness while doing very bad things. Saying a prayer before shooting up almost defeats the purpose of a seedy escape. And if I learned that somebody had maxed out my credit cards for a luxury hotel room, I would likely be more apoplectic. There’s probably a heavy-handed moral here somewhere. But if partaking in art keeps the universe calm, then that’s hardly a sentiment to get angry about.

NYFF: A Christmas Tale (2008)

[This is the third part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, despite its wintry title, is more A Midsummer Night’s Dream than Shakespeare’s Sicilian family saga, and the propinquitous tipoff here involves the 1935 film adaptation with Olivia de Havilland playing on a television set. However, at one point, a character informs family patriarch and dye manufacturer Abel Vuillard (played by the gravely-voiced Jean-Paul Rossilon) that his cologne makes him smell like Italy. The film is set largely over the course of four days, as fractious family members gather for the Christmas holiday. Desplechin’s film then is something of a cross between Home for the Holidays and Gosford Park, but without the former’s more pronounced domestic nightmares and the latter’s chessboard approach to unexpected connections between people. This is more of a light drawing room comedy, but avoids Noel Coward’s witticisms and, thankfully, manners. One keenly follows these many characters over the course of two and a half hours and feels, at times, as trapped as the family, contending with Desplechin’s dissolve-happy transitions and some wildly melodramatic backstory.

To wit: Catherine Deneuve plays the matriarch, Junon Vuillard. But unlike the Sean O’Casey play, this Junon does not work. Her drama involves a genetic condition that will lead to an early death. And a question is posed over which family member has the compatible bone marrow that will offer her a few extra years of life. (At one point, the family gathers around a blackboard, ferociously scribbling the mathematical odds with transplant or without.) Will it be the hard-drinking and prodigal son Henri, fond of getting into fistfights with in-laws and climbing outside windows jut for the hell of it? Or will it be grandson Paul, a mentally troubled teenager who sees random images of black dogs?

I’m making this film sound wilder than it is. If anything, the film could have used more hallucinations and more eccentric characters to round out this family. The manic-eyed Matthieu Amalric, who plays Henri, nearly steals the film. And because of Henri, the surrounding characters, such as a quietly tortured painter named Simon, never really get a chance to breathe. One suspects that Desplechin doesn’t entirely trust the natural impulses of his characters. Aside from the aforementioned dissolves, he regularly has the camera iris closing in on characters, much like the old silent films, and inserts homages to Vertigo and Pulp Fiction. While I realize that the French are more adept in depicting adulterous affairs than Americans, one such “midsummer” crush near the end of the film is emotionally unsatisfying, particularly since it involves an intriguing backstory of three men arguing over the woman.

I liked spending time with the Vuillards and sometimes felt as relaxed as the house guests. The house is a great depository of paintings, books, and records. The Vuillards are very tolerant with the family’s eccentric behavior, which involves daughter Elizabeth constantly sulking about the house and son Henri knocking on the door in the middle of the night, appearing with a Jewish woman who has no desire to partake in the Christian festivities. It should be observed that years before this Christmas, Elizabeth, in fact, brokered a deal in court to bail out the debt-ridden Henri. The terms involved Henri being banished from the family. But if Christmas is the seasonal panacea that brings the family together, the larger question of Henri’s long absence isn’t pursued nearly as rigorously as one might expect.

I was also unnerved by Melvil Poupaud’s close resemblance to Colin Farrell. This is certainly not Poupaud’s fault. He was no doubt born looking this way. But like Farrell, Poupaud’s character has forgotten to shave, and I kept expecting an eleventh hour sex tape to show up. It doesn’t help that Desplechin reminds us of this physical similarity by having Poupaud stand next to a film poster with Farrell’s name on it.

Desplechin, incidentally, is capable of wry subtext, such as the vulgar play-within-a-play on Christmas Eve, itself suggesting Midsummer‘s staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. The difference here is that Desplechin’s play-within-the-play has profane words shouted by young children. I can also report that, in France, The Ten Commandments plays on the television during Christmas. And it’s interesting that the French herald the birth of Christ with this televised opus while America contends with Charlton Heston’s fake beard and booming voice upon celebrating Christ’s resurrection. I was not aware of this.

But despite the unslain Abel playing Cecil Taylor and Charles Mingus, A Christmas Tale is neither particularly jazzy nor especially groundbreaking. This is somewhat surprising because Desplechin does have a few interesting ideas. When one character reads a letter, we see the man who wrote the letter reading the words against a blue backdrop. (Later in the film, when another letter is received, the light around that letter fades to black, suggesting Time stopped. But nobody ages sixteen years.) A Christmas Tale is the French cinematic equivalent of a cozy, okay in its own right, but there isn’t really a mystery and there certainly isn’t an able sleuth to delve into the modest behavioral conundrums kept ever so slightly at bay.


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