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 Foxs remarkable new film, The Bubble, easily the most important gay movie since Todd Hayness Poison and the most challenging political feature since Spike Lees Do the Right Thing.
Its difficult to summarize the plot of Foxs 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.orgs 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.
For a gay movie, the most crucial aspect of Chekovian correct formulation remains the depiction of homosexual affection and desire, which still rarely makes it on-screen in its actual form; what we get instead is hard-core pornography on the one hand, chaste -- chastened -- embraces on the other. Just before I saw The Bubble, in fact, I was arguing with a friend that the idyllic sex scene in Brokeback Mountain put the lie to that films claim of authenticity. Blood and shit are an undeniable aspect of anal intercourse, and the stigmatization (or erasure) of the messy reality remains a primary component of both straight and gay cultures ingrained homophobia. The first of Noam and Ashrafs two sex scenes is similarly sugary, with Noam handing Ashraf a condom and turning onto his stomach with a look of casual, practiced eagerness. When Ashraf lets Noam fuck him for the first time, however, the film acknowledges the physical and psychological delicacy of the moment: fear tempered by desire, pain overcome by pleasure. Virtually everyone whos had sex has asked Are you sure? yet when Noam says these words to Ashraf, he invokes a host of specters -- physical, political, religious -- that would wilt the erections of all but the most compartmentalized of lovers. It seems odd to think of sex as triumphant act, yet here it is precisely that. That it is also an isolated triumph -- a battle won, but not the warimbues it with pathos as well.
If, as viewers, we amplify this single moment of lovemaking into an entire relationship, our projection must be seen at least in part as a reflection of the lack of narratives about long-term gay relationships in our fiction -- and an even greater void in our cinema. Despite our anger over Hillarys cynical distinction between civil union and marriage, the truth is that we dont know what a gay marriage looks like. Its not that these relationships dont exist; we just havent learned how to incorporate them into our art. So many stories that gay men tell each other concern the yearning for a lifelong lover, and so many end with a rapturous communion that is presumed to lead to that desired relationship. But the very fact that we break off this particular story at the same point every time suggests that these relationships dont actually work out. Its as if gay men have translated the unrestrained promiscuity of the 60s and 70s into a truncated form of serial monogamy, entirely composed of beginnings that are simultaneously endings, triumphs that are in fact failures.
In The Bubble that ending is more explicit than in most movies, yet it is an ending presaged from the films beginning, however much we might have hoped otherwise. For all its many triumphs, Foxs film points out that gay cinema is still in its infancy, that our range and complexity in showing gay life has barely been hinted at. In fairness, we cant hold filmmakers entirely to blame for this situation: Gay people remain reluctant to examine the conflict between the feeling of specialness that attaches to coming out and the desire to be seen as normal -- do I read Out, or do I read Details, or Vanity Fair? Yet, as The Bubble shows us, the secret of homosexual universality lies in homosexual particularity, not the other way around. Until gay cinema can show us gay life in all its banality as well as beauty, it will exist as do most gay people, in Israel as well as America: separate and unequal.