The jellyfish does not swim, but instead drifts through the ocean on the currents, gently moving through the waves with no aim other than to encounter its food as it floats. So too does the charming and sensitive Israeli film Jellyfish, the 2007 winner of the Cannes Camera d'Or, drift without much in the way of intentions or goals, telling three stories related in only the most superficial way, never really concluding so much as it eventually, after 78 fleet minutes, wanders out of our reach. It is supremely unsatisfying according to all the normal rules of storytelling, but all that really goes to show is how limited those rules can be. Taken for what it is and nothing more, this film is a small miracle.
The debut film for directors Etgar Keret (a short story writer) and Shira Geffen (his wife, and the film's screenwriter), Jellyfish is about three people who find life coming up a little bit short in Tel Aviv: Batya (Sarah Adler), a waitress living in a squalid, leaky apartment despite having a famous mother whose charity is responsible for bringing better low-income housing to Israel; Michael (Gera Sandler), whose new wife Keren (Noa Knoller) snapped her ankle on their wedding day, condemning them to honeymoon in a smell resort hotel with a busted elevator; and Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Philippine immigrant trying to scrape together enough money as a caregiver to send her son back home a nice birthday present. Each of these lives is interrupted early in the film by an event that isn't so very unusual, except to the people involved: Batya rescues a nameless mute girl from the sea, Michael befriends a chain-smoking writer on the top floor of the hotel, and Joy is sent to live with the cranky mother of an actress for a bare living wage.
Watching the film, it becomes increasingly clear where these strands are going before they arrive there; the expected conflicts and resolutions fall as they will, and the symbolism always snaps in right where you think it will. For all that, it is a singularly pleasing exercise in familiarity, buoyed by the writer's sharp eye for character and a uniformly fine group of actors. Moving freely from warm sentiment to distinctly bitter loneliness, the film's brief funning time is enough to ensure that the audience doesn't have time to be bored, or even to mind that nothing really happens, when all is said and done. Of course, this is begging the question that things must happen in a film in order for it to qualify as a success; frankly, the mere fact that engaging people are experiencing the messy stuff of life is all that it takes for Jellyfish to work its particular spell. It is a restful film, and one full of wise observations, and I pity the viewer who doesn't think that these are enough.
Keret and Geffen prove to be gifted filmmakers, not yet ready to take the world by storm but unquestionably talented enough that we should be very lucky if the time comes when they make a second project. Jellyfish is rich in visual detail; not maybe the same thing as a compelling visual language, but far be it from me to split that difference. As a slice-of-life study, it trades heavily in the smallest particulars of the world it presents (which is both Tel Aviv and a place much too specific to the film to pigeonhole that way): the pattern on wallpaper, a centipede climbing up a damp wall, the clutter filling up a house, all contribute as much to the texture and feel of the movie as much as any specifics of dialogue or plot. People live in the world of the film, and not just the people that we meet.
There is also the somewhat more useful matter of the directors' eyes for the memorable image: from the first moments of the film, in which an urgent series of tracking shots move back and forth through a crowded room, seemingly looking for our future protagonists, it's clear that these first-timers know what it takes to make a movie cinematic. Visual jokes are scattered all about the film, like a beautiful ocean backdrop that proves to be the side of a moving van, and the compositions, though rarely innovative, are good enough to get the point across: these are isolated people, desperate for human contact. The empty spaces in this film are hardly enough to be terrifying, but enough to add a note of desperation to all but the gentlest moments.
It's hardly an unsung masterpiece or essential viewing (and if it was the best debut film at the 2007 Cannes festival, I am filled with unease about the future of the artform), but Jellyfish has an agreeable easiness to it that makes it hard not to champion it. It is, in its own way, flawless, as such quiet and small movies go, and if that kind of tiny intimacy isn't worth a moment's recognition, I have to wonder why bother with movies at all.