Sad and lonely, Batya (Sarah Adler) sits on the shore, gazing away from her hectic life in Tel Aviv. She’s frustrated with her high-powered mother’s expectations, her father’s distraction by a much younger girlfriend, and her own dreary work for a wedding caterer… and then she sees a child emerge from the sea. Big-eyed and gently freckled, the five-year-old girl (Nicole Leidman) stops in front of Batya, her pale chest exposed, a sweet little bathing tube encircling her hips. “What’s your name?” Batya asks, “Where are your parents?” When the child doesn’t answer, Batya puts a blue towel around her and rubs.
The child remains silent and unexplained, her hair damp for the rest of Jellyfish (Meduzot), last year’s Camera d’Or winner at Cannes. For all her seeming mystery, the girl’s function is soon apparent: when a mostly disinterested policeman announces that Children’s Services is closed and so Batya must look after the girl for the weekend, Batya’s first thought is collect some of her own old clothes to dress her. Much as she’s tried to avoid it, she’ll have to speak with her mother and visit her father.
Along with these reconciliations, difficult and incomplete, Batya finds a new relationship, with Tamar (Tsipor Aizen), a photographer who works for the same bully of a caterer Batya does. Their connection is hinted at early in the film when, during a typically chaotic wedding party, Tamar spends more time shooting Batya clearing tables and carrying trays of hors d’oeuvres. The boss grumbles at Tamar, insisting she focus instead on the dance floor, but the photographer is plainly uninterested in her assignment. Batya confides she feels similarly bored: “The same food, the same leftovers,” she says, “only the bride and groom change.” Tamar draws on her cigarette. “They don’t change,” she says.
In fact, the film offers one bride and groom for closer inspection in the second of its three vaguely related stories. Their marriage begins inauspiciously, when Keren (Noa Knoller) finds herself stuck in a bathroom stall, the door jammed while her new husband Michael (Gera Sandler) is busy on the dance floor. Removing her dress but still wearing her white satin heels, Keren falls as she tries to climb out. A cut to the doctor’s office shows him applying a cast to her broken leg. When Michael inquires about their intended Caribbean, the doctor is curt: “Definitely not.” And so they book a last-minute room at a local hotel, where they are unable to see the ocean from their window. As each slips into his or her own gloomy self-reflection, each finds a distraction: Michael meets a poet in an elevator (“How do you spell ‘eternally in disgrace,'” she asks, “One ‘l’ or two?”), while Keren frets that he’s no longer interested in her. When Michael asks her what “eternally in disgrace” means, Keren explains, “It’s something bad that goes on and on and never stops.” It’s an awkward device, but suddenly it appears the film is describing their contextless marriage in dire terms.
Gera Sandler as Michael and Noa Knoller as Keren in JELLYFISH.
Another sort of misery is offered in Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre). Looking for work in Tel Aviv as a caretaker, in order to support her own five-year-old back in the Philippines, Joy falls into a relationship with Malka (Zaharira Harifai), whose daughter, an actress named Galia (Ilanit Ben Yaakov), is unable to pick her up from the hospital. “My mother,” warns Galia when she hires Joy in a coffee shop, “She’s a tough person, she can be rude.” Malka is quick to express her resentment, premised on her anger at Galia as well as her own ailing body, compounded by the fact that Joy speaks no Hebrew and appears decidedly un-tough. As they stumble through introductions (Malka trying to dismiss her new helper, even as she’s having trouble just exiting the hospital), Joy falls apart when she discovers she’s lost the photo of her son that she always carries in her purse.
You’ve just seen the moment when she lost the photo, when she was knocked on the sidewalk by Batya, riding by on her bicycle. Jellyfish is punctuated by such moments — convenient collisions, unknowing near misses, parallels unnoticed by characters but visible to you — that are by turns overstated and poetic. In Batya’s first minutes on screen, her boyfriend is leaving her: they appear against what seems a painting of blue water, bright and charmingly artificial, revealed as the side of a moving van when a truck engine starts and the blue literally chugs out from behind Batya, now left alone. “Stay,” she says softly, after he has left her against a brick wall background.
Ma-nenita De Latorre as Joy and Zaharira Harifai as Malka in JELLYFISH.
While the scene announces the film’s intensive focus on water — a sign of transition, loss and rebirth — it is also a sign of its stylized poetry, sometimes lovely, sometimes precious. Batya’s encounter with the girl is probably the plainest expression of this theme, though the relentless drip-drip-drip in her apartment — the result of a ceiling leak that her landlord refuses to fix even as he raises her rent — is a close second (when she brings the child home and leaves her alone for a moment, Batya is startled to discover her guest with face upturned, drinking the drips as they splash down). Keren’s desire to see the water from the hotel leads to Michael’s deal with the poet to exchange rooms (the poet’s room is on the top floor, affording an expansive, honeymoony view). And Joy is desperate to buy a toy boat for her son for his birthday, pausing at the store window to admire it even though she cannot explain to Malka what she wants.
As the film tracks Batya, Joy, and Keren’s similar desires to understand themselves and their situations, it makes a familiar point, that resolutions are forged in a combination of independence, interconnections, and above all, forgiveness. Comprised of exquisite single images, Jellyfish achieves a fluidity that is both alluring and conventional.