By Dale Peck
Unrequited love makes for great pop, but real pathos comes when two lovers are prevented from coming together by extenuating circumstances, be they family (Romeo and Juliet), war (Casablanca), or money (The Heiress). Such stories showcase the perennially disastrous intersection of self-expression and the societal pressure to conform. At the very least, they remind us that a successful relationship is as much a matter of luck and timing as hard work; at their best, they illuminate not just love but its cultural context -- the obligations of family and nationality; the expectations of gender, race, class, faith. All of these forces are at work in Eytan Fox's remarkable new film, The Bubble, easily the most important gay movie since Todd Haynes's Poison and the most challenging political feature since Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.
It's difficult to summarize the plot of Fox's film without giving away too much. A Levantine triangle initially reminiscent of Reality Bites or Threesome -- two gay men and a straight woman sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv -- is quickly complicated when one of the men moves his new boyfriend in. Yelli (Alon Friedmann) and Lulu (Daniela Wircer), the roommates, are hardly stock characters, but it is the relationship between Noam (Ohad Knoller) and Ashraf (Yousef Sweid) that takes center stage. Noam is a music-store clerk who attempts to steer his shallow clientele away from Britney and toward Bright Eyes. Ashraf is a Palestinian who first locked eyes with Noam while the latter was fulfilling his army reserve duty at a border checkpoint. The political exigencies of a relationship between an undocumented Palestinian and a gay Israeli inhabiting the so-called bubble of liberal young Tel Aviv could have turned into the sort of fairy tale Forster wrote in Maurice or succumbed to the polemical badgering that mars the work of filmmakers such as John Sayles and Ken Loach. But Fox gets it just right here, sacrificing neither the humanity of his characters nor the horrific reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The film goes to great lengths to show an Israeli youth culture that is as well-intentionedly naive as any American recipient of MoveOn.org's mass e-mailings. And though the jarring juxtaposition of Pop Idol parties and suicide bombings, peace raves and drive-bys in the occupied territories would seem ludicrous in virtually any other setting, it feels appropriate here, a reflection of the divided reality for many young people in contemporary Israel, where the Western desire to enjoy the pleasures and pursuits of prosperity exists in opposition to ancient hatreds and their terrifyingly modern methods of expression. Like Cabaret, its closest cinematic parallel, The Bubble refuses to offer answers to the problems it depicts. But, as Chekhov wrote, art must draw a distinction between 'answering the question and formulating it correctly.' Cabaret was made nearly three decades after World War II; that Fox has managed to make a film whose levelheaded gaze directly contradicts inflammatory current events seems almost miraculous.