It’s time again for my annual pre-Provincetown Film Festival blog post. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a film that I saw at the festival back in 2007, Eytan Fox’s The Bubble. The celebrated Israeli director has become known for his gay-themed films like Yossi and Jagger and Walk on Water, which focus with authenticity and complexity on relationships between men. His films are always bold, too, keeping the sexual aspect of those relationships well within focus. The Bubble follows suit, this time exploring a romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian man. Several films have taken this particular “star-crossed lovers” approach in a gay Israeli context (the most recent being Michael Mayer’s Out in the Dark), but The Bubble still feels to me like the most successful and genuine effort of its kind.
The film’s title refers to its setting — the city of Tel Aviv, a relative bubble of acceptance and liberation within a war-torn desert of political strife. More specifically, it refers to the area of the city surrounding Sheinkin Street, similar to trendy, gay-friendly Old Compton Street in London’s Soho district. Inside this socially tolerant bubble, the movie’s four central characters emerge: Noam (Ohad Knoller), a sweet, quiet record shop employee who also works as a military check-point guard; Yali (Alon Friedman), Noam’s flamboyant best friend; Lulu (Daniella Wircer), the free-spirited straight female roommate of the aforementioned men; and Ashraf (Yousef Sweid), the Palestinian guy with whom Noam falls in love.
Noam first meets Ashraf under very intense circumstances in the film’s dramatic opening scene. Ashraf is on a bus heading into Tel Aviv when the bus is stopped at an Israeli military check-point where Noam is working on guard duty. During the inspection of the passengers, a pregnant woman goes into labor, and the baby must be delivered right in the middle of the road. The frantic tension of the scene is palpable and believable. After they exchange some subtle but knowing glances, Ashraf retrieves Noam’s dropped identification card and later takes it to Noam’s apartment to return it to him.
Eytan Fox incorporates a number of smart moves into the film, one of which occurs during the first night that Noam and Ashraf share together on the roof of Noam’s apartment building. They’ve vacated the apartment for the night so that Lulu can spend it privately with the handsome if malign magazine editor she’s been dating. The camera intersplices naked close-ups of Lulu and her date in bed together with identically intimate close-ups of Noam and Ashraf sleeping together up on the roof, as if to say: young people do enjoy sex, and there’s not much distinction between gay and straight in that regard.
Ashraf decides to stay on for the duration after that first night he spends with Noam, partly because he has a chance to be himself in Tel Aviv. He begins to work as a waiter at Orna and Ella, the restaurant where Yali is a manager. Meanwhile, Lulu becomes increasingly involved with a group of Israeli anti-occupation activists who seek to find peace and common ground with Palestinian young people, even organizing a rave on a beach where the characters can all come together in what feels like a kind of paradise for them.
Of course, it’s not a paradise for very long. Ashraf doesn’t have a government permit that would allow him to remain in Tel Aviv, and his conservative Palestinian family expects him to marry a woman and have children. Further drama ensues, bringing about Noam’s separation from Ashraf. In a very funny sequence, Yali and Lulu perform an Israeli pop song in drag in an attempt to rouse Noam from his bed and his depression after the seeming breakup.
Yes, Yali embraces his queeny side, and no, there’s nothing wrong with a stock gay character who can drop hilarious and witty one-liners about Take That, Judith Butler, and Michel Foucault. In fact, all four characters are finely drawn and acted, and their dialogue is lucid and clever for the most part. The screenplay does contain some overly convenient and melodramatic twists, all of which I’m willing to overlook because of the film’s emotionally precise inner dynamics.
This emotional exactitude is a fairly rare quality in movies that focus on relationships between gay men. Noam and Ashraf are both treated with an understated sense of dignity throughout, just two everyday guys who have found themselves deeply and irreversibly attracted to one another. Not to mention the obvious chemistry between the two actors, which helps to foster some of the most moving scenes of physical closeness between men that I’ve ever seen on screen.
And that closeness works to devastating effect at the film’s climax, during a tragic scene that’s foreshadowed by some dialogue between Ashraf and Noam early in the movie. The morning after they’ve first had sex on the rooftop, Noam says in Hebrew, “We were explosive,” and explains to Ashraf that the word “explosive” can be used as slang for when something’s cool. Their climactic finale that fatally echoes those words (along with a visual cue from Martin Sherman’s canonical 1979 play Bent) is filmed in a burst of light with a 360-degree, hyper-kinetic tracking shot, the perfect directorial decision for a heartbreaking scene that might otherwise be impossible to render.
Also to his credit, Eytan Fox doesn’t leave the viewer with any unearned sentimentality or simple answers in the film’s voiceover denouement (alongside a beautiful cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” by Ivri Lider in the movie’s closing credits). Certainly for gay men surrounded by the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, love is forced to try to persist amidst violence and persecution. The Bubble creates a realistic fantasy that approximates what exactly that struggle must feel like.