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Not Made in America
- Three films that get it right: The Wedding Plan, One Week and a Day, and The Commune

by Jennifer Parker

May 26, 2017
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Film traditions outside of Hollywood are seldom considered apart from Oscar Season. 2017, a year where it is almost impossible to find one unifying thread in the world, I challenge you to look to films made outside the Hollywood milieu to see that we all want the same things, people want love, we fear loneliness, we experience profound loss, we look for love in all the wrong places and we experiment in living situations that are doomed for failure. If you have ever been foreign film curious, The Wedding Plan, One Week and a Day and The Commune are great films to start with.

So, what does a rom-com, a dramedy and a drama have in common besides English language subtitles? Two of the films are out of Israel by Israeli American directors and the third is straight out of Denmark. Stripped down, one is about finding love, one is about losing love and the other is about hanging on for dear life. All the films are as much about place as they are about those who inhabit it. None of them would make sense out of their geographical context and yet they are such familiar stories. Is it possible to be hanging on for dear life and not be desperate? Perhaps that is what the films have in common. Regardless, they are too fun to pass up.

The Wedding Plan
The Wedding Plan

What could possibly go wrong with a wedding with only one confirmed participant? Anyone who has been on the biological clock, or dated fast-track to marriage, or got dumped by a lover, or was abandoned at the alter (or Chuppah), will be delighted by The Wedding Plan, the second film from American-Israeli writer and director Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void). Burshtein’s film confronts the self-imposed shame that comes from the fear of being alone in contemporary society, especially when our hero, Michal (played earnestly by Noa Koler) is dumped by her fiancé, Gidi, (Erez Drigues) one week before her wedding. Yet it’s still a rom-com, with Burshtein in on the joke the entire time. With the help of two professional matchmakers, the audience endures a series of terrible dates.

Michal has a wedding dress, a place to live, a venue and 200 guests. All she needs is the groom. Our heroine is an idealist and she isn’t crazy. She believes that she can find the love of her life by Hanukkah if she believes it will happen. The problem is she goes on a lot of bad dates, flies to the Ukraine, meets a rock star, falls in love with the rock star and must decide if what she wants is a religious life or a life that doesn’t have a Hebrew translation for it, “wow.” Taxing what is normally a supportive relationship with her secular mother (Irit Sheleg) and sister (Dafi Alferon), her family is concerned that Michal needs to move on with her life. How can the woman who’s spent 490 hours dating 123 men over a period of 10 years give up so easily? Michal might be a self-described “religious chick” but she is not average.

Michal lives with her two best friends, Feggie and Ziva who do their best to support her on her quest to find the love of her life before Hanukkah but they have their own dating issues to consider and they don’t necessarily align with Michal’s. The ringtone on her cellphone is part of the soundtrack, which isn’t particularly inspired. The “rock star” is played by Oz Zehavi who is cute to the point of absurdity is an obvious Red Herring but we’re rooting for him because he’s adorable. Life isn’t fair.

In the rom-com narrative, the heroine must succeed or the film becomes a farce. The issue with The Wedding, is that we never believe for one minute that Michal is destined for a life of spinsterhood. It clearly isn’t that kind of a movie. The only suspense that we experience is who is Mr. Right and will he make it to the Chuppah on time? The acting is mostly solid though some of the biggest standout performances have the least amount of screen time. One of the funniest scenes is a dinner date with a man (played by Udi Persi) who won’t make eye contact because he only wants to physically see the woman he winds up marrying and proposes marriage, which he does on every date. Clearly, the two match makers that Michal is working with are at the bottom of their lists. It must be what happens when you realize that you’ve swiped left too many times on Tinder. Maybe to meet someone organically you must believe that time is on your side?

One Week and a Day
One Week and a Day

The aftermath of any significant loss is more akin to being trapped on a rollercoaster without an off-switch, which is why it is remarkable that One Week and a Day, the first feature from Israeli writer-director Asaph Polonsky is legitimately a funny movie. Both raw and seductive, Polonsky’s film contemplates the intractable bewilderment and sorrow that realize a parent’s worst fear – the death of a child. This is a day-in-the-life movie that plays out over 24 hours in an Israeli suburb immediately after the Shiva, seven days of Jewish ritual mourning. It could be titled “What Happens When the Casseroles Stop coming?” Vicky and Eyal Spivak (played straight by Russian-Israeli actress Jenya Dodina and Israeli comedian Shai Avivi) as their identities shift from being parents to being grieving parents of their adult son, Ronnie who it seems has died from cancer. We have words for prematurely losing parents (orphans) and for spouses (widows) but there must be a reason no one has come up with a title for losing a child. It is just too final. Eyal and Vicky are on a trajectory of non-coping. Vicky wants to return to her job as an elementary school teacher without notifying the school of her return. Eyal becomes obsessed with retrieving his son’s missing blanket from Hospice care where he is gifted a rather large bag of medical grade marijuana from the room’s new occupant.

Eyal starts picking fights with anyone who annoys him, which is pretty much everyone. What he needs is a distraction and someone to teach him how to roll a joint. He co-opts his neighbor’s son, Zooler (Tomer Kapon), a former friend of Ronnie’s who is in a permanent state of arrested development into being his playdate. Eyal does not play nicely in the sandbox. The dialogue is cutting and hilarious. No one worries about saying the right thing. When Zooler tells Vicky how sorry he is, she tells him to “get the fuck out of my face, Zooler.” Polonsky isn’t afraid of playing with gaps in dialogue both with and without the soundtrack. There’s a five-minute montage in the middle of the film without a single word. Some of it has a rhythm from the soundtrack to drive it forward but the last minute of the sequence is dependent on the strength of Dodina’s acting in over a minute of silence as the bereaved mother who never cries but is tearless. Vicky and Eyal are moving through quicksand but you know that somehow, they’re going to be okay. There is a reason parents are supposed to die first. Losing a child is unlike any other loss. If you ascribe to the adage that comedy is tragedy plus time, it would be difficult to believe that eight days after the death of a child would be a great premise for a funny movie. One Week and A Day (limited release) is a comedy that isn’t afraid to find the funny in the reality of moving on in life. It is amazing what a falafel and an unsupervised husband with a razor can do.

The Commune
The Commune

On the surface, The Commune (Magnolia Pictures) is an ensemble piece, but dig a little deeper and Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg’s film is a beautifully architected film. Initially, Vinterberg invites us into The Commune through the eyes of Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), a quiet fourteen-year-old. It is set in the 1970s, paying homage to the director’s own childhood experience of communal living in Denmark. What I love about the film was that it truly is a visual expression of the medium. The director trusts the actors to tell the story by showing and not by telling. Vinterberg is not afraid to make the audience uncomfortable by holding a shot for a few extra seconds or going in a little extra close. Vinterberg has a beautiful shot in which Freja is watching her parents through the reflection of the television. The audience sees the degradation of privacy before the characters do. We are one step ahead and it just makes us deliciously anxious. He uses harsh lighting to expose people at their most vulnerable but not gratuitously.

The use of dialogue is sparse, making the fact that it is subtitled in English of little consequence for those who have no knowledge of Danish. I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not at all versed with Danish cinema. I am unfamiliar with Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen who are superb in their performances as a successful married couple at a critical juncture in their marriage. Even more striking is that Danish women are not expected to be as perfect as American women even portraying women in the same era. Dryholm is classically beautiful but she is not made to look 2017 throwback to 1970s pretty. We see the lines on her face, something that American Gen-X actresses struggle with. It is clear Erik is unable to adapt to her experiment in communal living and in his desperate need to cling to conventionality has strayed outside his marriage with a virtual replica of his wife minus 20 years. Yet, we forgive Erik for his foibles. His home has been invaded by a group of people who are not all able to help pay for expenses. He is sleeping with a grad student. Erik and Anna’s daughter, Freja is exploring her sexuality. Others are experiencing profound loss. Vinterberg makes the audience long for the impossible to be possible but shows us shot after shot, scene after scene that it just can’t be so and yet, like Freja, we can’t help watching.

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