Foxtrot (2017) Sundance Review

Sony Pictures Classics

“In old men there is no taste; in young, no insight.” – Ancient Jewish Proverb

“Peace can happen in 24 hours…just like war can happen in 24 hours.” – Sari Nusseibeh

*****

Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot, Israel’s Official Submission to the 2018 Academy Awards (in the Best Foreign Language Film category), thrums with grief, but is not itself sad. Actually, it is startlingly funny, once the confusion caused by Arik Leibovitch and Guy Nemesh’s editorial jumbling wears off.

Maoz, who wrote the ingenious script, divides the tragic from the comic by place. He asks Leibovitch and Nemesh to jump between two distinct settings: the apartment of a successful Israeli architect (Lior Ashkenazi, of Footnote, looking more like a heartthrob Steve Carell every day) and his wife, Dafna (the deeply-felt Sarah Adler), whose soldier son may have died in combat; and the base of the possibly-deceased himself, Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray).

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Maoz and cinematographer Giora Bejach shoot the apartment like a giant cage, with Ashkenazi’s Michael Feldman struggling to break free. Feldman’s kitchen floor is a series of jagged edges, with a bathroom so small that he has to put a hand against a wall to avoid running into it. Even the family dog, who Michael uses as his virtual punching bag (pet-lovers, beware!), can’t seem to find a comfortable place to rest its head.

Between its hyperreal photography and the exquisitely metaphorical production design (by Arad Sawat), the filmmaking style in these apartment sequences might be called Israeli Expressionism. The action taking place on the army base is another matter altogether, visually and allegorically.

Jonathan and his comrades – three docile, adolescent hipsters – spend their time boiling canned meat, tinkering with old machinery, and shepherding camels along a single-lane border road. In a simpler film, the area might be shot like an arid dead-zone, deserted and lonely.

Yet Bejach shoots it like David Lynch might: with creatures moving eerily out of dreadful patches of shadow; psychosexual images of a woman’s head and bodies plastered around the base; and with melodramatic pop songs synchronized to doe-eyed romantic glances.

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It is obvious that Jonathan is not a soldier at heart, but then again, neither are his buddies. Though theirs are the responsibilities of all Israel citizens of their age, the boys’ daily lives are unremittingly, unfathomably surreal. They could kill, or be killed, at any moment, in the name of what a superior officer calls “war”. What is more surreal than that?

Somehow, the filmmakers turn this warped war-zone into a space for several tremendous deadpan comic sequences. Jonathan, we come to learn, is creatively-minded, to the point that he is a touch absent. He draws lewd Crumb-like cartoons, which Maoz uses to mount a startling animated daydream.

Then there is the dancing – primarily of the type that gives the movie its title – which is seen too extensively in the film trailer but not enough in the film itself. I suppose this is because Sony wants you to know what the title precisely means, all the better to sell a miserablist Israeli war drama to you.

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But the foxtrot is more than just a dance in Maoz’s hands – it is the film’s central motif and its overarching metaphor.

How he connects this ballroom classic with the redundant cycles of Israel-Palestinian conflict are too clever for their own good. These are subjects we have seen onscreen before, though rarely with so much invention and visual spirit.

This is Maoz’s first feature since his debut 9 years ago with Lebanon, and those attentive to the international cinema have wondered where on Earth he’s been.

Perhaps it was this frenzied anticipation which led to Foxtrot winning the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, or to its being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in the United States (it opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 2nd.)

More likely, it is Maoz’s inimitable tonal fusion of brutal misery and peculiar jokes that earned it a place in the Spotlight section of this year’s Sundance, where it has already had its first screening.

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In an odd way, the film is perfect for the festival: an innovatively stylistic family dramedy from one of the most socioeconomically complex countries in the world. [I apologize for all the portmanteaus and adjectives in that sentence, but they do help to explain why Sundance programmed it, don’t you think?]

Its commercial possibilities Stateside are another matter, however. I don’t use the term “peculiar” incidentally – Maoz’s is an idiosyncratic vision, and his film a reflection of a mind run somewhat amok.

Giora Bajoch’s cinematography is glamorous, yet discombobulating, to the point where a guest at my screening became nauseous during a bird’s-eye view sequence in the Feldmans’ apartment. And the film’s subject matter, which becomes part of the Hanekean games Maoz places with us during his sickening first and third acts, is hard to swallow.

Foxtrot’s primary draw is its actors, particularly Ashkenazi, who has never been better. Michael is a rare breed of alpha male: a weeper, a bully, and a beauty queen all in one. Ashkenazi situates him on the line between understandable wrath and stress-induced psychosis, and never lets up. His intensity in the role suggests what someone like Sean Penn or Mark Ruffalo might do in the inevitable remake.

Adler, too, is in peak form. Dafna controls much of the third act, a hypothetical reunion with her estranged husband in the near future. But baggy-eye makeup can only take the look of trauma so far. It’s Adler’s lived-in forsakenness which makes these scenes nigh on unwatchable. Only the presence of Dafna’s and Michael’s teenage daughter, played by Shira Haas with innocent optimism, stalls these scenes (and the film) from spilling over a tragic cliffside. Thank goodness for her.

Directed and Written by: Samuel Maoz
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonaton Shiray, Shira Haas, Yehuda Almagor
Produced by: Marc Baschet, Viola Fügen, Cédomir Kolar, Eitan Mansuri, Michel Merkt, Michael Weber
Music by: Ophir Leibovitch, Amit Poznansky
Cinematography by: Giora Bejach
Editing by: Arik Leibovitch, Guy Nemesh
Official Selection of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

Sony Pictures Classics presents Foxtrot, a film by Samuel Maoz, in theaters March 2, 2018.

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