Sunday, May 23, 2021

Sublet (dir. Eytan Fox, 2020)

Israeli director Eytan Fox’s latest film, Sublet, which is currently screening in film festivals prior to its theatrical release here in the United States this summer, captures the soul of Tel Aviv. That kind of intimate encounter is achieved both through cinematographic details, like panoramic shots of curved tidal pools rolling onto the beaches of Tel Aviv by day and by night, as well as through the central gay characters, Michael and Tomer, at the heart of this gorgeous two-hander. As viewers, we experience the city both through the fresh perspective of professional tourist Michael (John Benjamin Hickey, in a perfectly calibrated performance) and the more familiar perspective of Israeli native Tomer (Niv Nissim, who hits all the requisite notes of sexiness, jaded youthful humor, and depth). The movie opens with Michael, a 50-something New York Times travel writer, landing in Tel Aviv for an assignment over a five-day visit. When he arrives at Tomer’s apartment to sublet it for the week, the 20-something filmmaking student has totally forgotten that his subletter would be arriving that day, setting up a standard odd-couple scenario that turns out to be so much more than that. Sublet is the finest and most delicate May/December semi-romance in a far-flung location since Sofia Coppola’s 2003 Tokyo-set Oscar winner (for Best Original Screenplay), Lost in Translation.

Later in the movie, when Tomer’s mother (Miki Kam) asks Michael about his impressions of Tel Aviv over a quiet dinner at her home in the kibbutz near the end of his stay, he replies that the city is a unique mixture of intensity and laidback vibes, which is actually a great description of the film itself as well. Because Tomer’s bicycle gets stolen during the film’s early scenes, we experience the city — along with Michael and Tomer’s relationship — on foot at ground level as Tomer becomes a tour guide for Michael, and so the film unfolds with exactly the pace that such a relationship would. What’s special about Sublet as a piece of gay cinema is its cross-generational component. That element is handled in a sensitive manner that’s quite rare in gay movies, achieved through subtle moments that are fairly easy to miss: Michael’s glance of realization when Tomer’s mother mentions that she’d had him with a sperm donor and raised him alone, for instance, or Tomer’s gradual recognition of the hardships that gay men of Michael’s generation have faced over time.

Sublet also isn’t afraid to face more difficult truths about contemporary gay culture and why plenty of younger gay men today can struggle to find stability and contentment. After Tomer invites over a hot guy from a hookup app for a potential threesome midway through the movie, we catch on long-partnered Michael’s face a dismissive glimpse of disappointment as he excuses himself from the scene, despite his clear feelings of desire and physical interest. It’s such a deft momentary expression for an actor to convey, and it reminded me of a comment that I heard the actor/director John Cameron Mitchell make a while back, about how younger gay men have been poorly conditioned by the instant gratification of apps like Grindr, to the extent that any attempts at actually getting to know somebody (or even enjoying the pleasures of foreplay) just get totally omitted these days. Although Tomer claims to like the quickness of those sexual interactions that require “no drama,” Michael senses otherwise and so begins to nudge the younger man gently in another direction.

I was fortunate to see John Benjamin Hickey starring on stage as Henry Wilcox in Matthew Lopez’s epic two-part play The Inheritance on Broadway in late November of 2019, several months prior to the shutdown of theaters prompted by the global Covid-19 pandemic in mid-March of 2020, which occurred just a couple of nights before that play was scheduled to close its Broadway run. Hickey portrays a similar character in Sublet, someone who lived through the AIDS crisis, lost his first boyfriend to the disease, then survived to weather the cultural changes of the ensuing decades, only to end up overseeing the lives and antics of a younger generation of gay men in New York City, providing them with support and good counsel as an older gay man. Eytan Fox relies on Hickey’s gently timeworn facial features to ideal effect here, so that we, too, can feel the span of time that the character has endured, enabling a kind of closeness via Hickey’s performance that winds up feeling more internal, rather than being focused solely on age or the distinctions of external appearance. This is probably the movie’s most distinguishing emotional aspect, and Fox and Hickey both seem to be aware of that.

Niv Nissim’s performance as the younger and somewhat disenchanted Tomer is equally profound on many levels, believably inhabiting a character who doesn’t want to be tied down to strict definitions of sexuality or long-term monogamous relationships, nor even obligatory “happy endings.” He’s happier having more fleeting encounters with a wide variety of people, sexually and otherwise, while making art through unconventional horror films with the help of his young actor friends in Tel Aviv. (One of his student films that he shares with Michael was perhaps a little too clearly inspired by Rosemary’s Baby.) Tomer's predilections provide an important contrast to Michael’s own relationship with his partner David (Peter Spears) back in New York, with whom he face-times on his cell phone and laptop at a couple of strategic points in the movie. They argue and discuss, in particular, whether they should pursue having a child via a surrogate again, after their first attempt to do so went tragically wrong, as we find out during a deeply moving and matter-of-fact scene late in the film.

Where the movie goes from that point in its final act is better left unsaid, simply in terms of the audience’s emotional payoff. And while the film’s central pair of characters do move on and resolve their issues on a number of levels, where exactly Michael and Tomer will go in the wake of their encounter remains open-ended, even if it’s clear that the encounter has changed both of them in key ways as they return again to the familiar grooves of their individual separate lives. I’ve seen and loved all of Etyan Fox’s films, which collectively provide an essential document of gay Israeli life over the past three decades, but at this particular point in my own life as a gay man at age 47, Sublet is his movie that’s meant the most to me on an immediate emotional level, and also the one that I’ve related to most closely. I watched the film twice over the past couple of months, and both times I was moved to tears by the exact same scene. It’s obviously the scene that the director intended to make his audience cry, as a result of all that’s been expertly held back by the actors up to that moment, and then all that’s finally allowed to reveal itself more fully in the brightness of an airport’s waiting area, a space of anonymity and transit.

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