The title of Israeli writer-director Shira Geffen's Jellyfish is a metaphor for the many tentacles of melancholy that reach out and sting its half-dozen or so central characters, who are all adrift in an ocean of loneliness and despair.
We meet Batya (Sarah Adler), a waitress for a company that caters weddings, on the day her new ex-boyfriend is loading up the moving van. He asks her: "Don't you want to say anything? Like 'Stay'?" She finally says it -- softly, to herself, as the van pulls away. Then she's at work, where a honeymoon is ruined when the bride gets locked in a bathroom stall and sprains her ankle trying to climb out.
Batya's mother is a TV spokesperson for "Fundraising Day," a national effort to help the needy. On the beach one afternoon, Batya sees a red-haired, blue-eyed little girl (portrayed by Nikol Leidman) emerge mysteriously from the water. She takes her to the police, but it's Friday, and social services are closed for the weekend, so Batya takes the little girl home.
Meanwhile, a man hires a Filipino woman who speaks no English to look after his mother, who suffers from dementia. The woman has a little boy back home who angrily misses her. Later she goes to work for an actress playing Ophelia in a local production of Hamlet, literary history's most famous melancholic.
Jellyfish sets up these interlocking lives and then moves back and forth between them. About half of everything the characters say and do is a metaphor for something, and together their circumstances contemplate loneliness, responsibility and, perhaps above all, the lives of women -- their roles and options in society.
Marriage is a series of little nightmares. Staying single is the pits. Mothers are critical and demanding. Daughters are ungrateful and distant. And who is that little girl that Batya found on the beach? The answer seems to be metaphysical. (In Hebrew, by the way, "jellyfish" is "meduzot," as in "medusa." How perfect is that?)
In the end, the characters begin to reach out, make connections -- break through their wailing wall of isolation. Water represents life, and ships, when allowed to sail, represent freedom. Yet apart from a few fleeting details, there's nothing particularly "Israeli" about these dilemmas: Jellyfish could be a contemporary indie art film from America or France or Poland or China. Its anxieties are universal, and Geffen seems to want to keep them that way, eschewing cultural references that would isolate her characters.
"There's no plot development," Batya says to a photographer friend as they watch the woman's episodic 8 mm movies of her childhood. She replies: "I don't like development." A few scenes later, the bride -- whose husband has begun what seems to be a flirtation with a handsome woman in their honeymoon hotel -- contemplates her isolation: "A ship in a bottle cannot sink or collect dust." To which we might add: A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries. In Hebrew, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., July 11. Regent Square
- Players in the life aquatic: Nikol Leidman and Sarah Adler