Cannes 2014 Review: SELF MADE, Funny, Savage, And Smart

Shira Geffen made a splash in 2007 with her debut Jellyfish, a film she co-directed with her husband, writer Etgar Keret. This time Geffen is going solo, and though she may not have many credits on her resume, her confidence behind the camera is already remarkably assured. Self Made is darkly funny, stylishly provocative work.

That style is used here to tell the story of two women, one Israeli, one Palestinian, divided by class, privilege and a military checkpoint, and brought together by a single screw (the Hebrew title is just that, The Screw). The Israeli is Michal, a thirtyish performance artist of international fame. The Palestinian is Nadine, a woman ten years her junior working at an Ikea-like warehouse. Both are women on the move. Michal travels the world with her art, and is preparing her latest piece for the Venice Biennale. Nadine crosses checkpoints every day hopping between the big city and the West Bank. 

Michal's bed collapses in the first shot and the fall she takes leaves her with a massive concussion. Nadine is fired from her job when Michal's replacement bed is missing a screw. Both move forward riding waves of cresting confusion on a collision course with one another, and when they do meet, the film goes full on Kafka. The two women switch places, with Michal heading to the territories and Nadine to the bobo art world. Geffen never explains why, and the swap goes unremarked by everyone else. In any case, as the visuals have already made clear, we're meant to process the work on a more figurative level. 

Geffen has a great eye and really works the set design to her advantage. Every shot in the film is immaculately composed; every shade of color expresses a thought. She often uses that Wes Anderson-esque technique of centering her actors in the middle of the frame, and filling the rest of it with right angles and symmetrical precision. But her style shares nothing but the most superficial similarities to the American Twee-mster. Her technique is not just florid for florid's sake. It is closer to the initial intent of film expressionism, where the outer artifice relayed inner truth. Like the film's surrealistic conceit, she deploys her visuals for expressly political purposes. 

That is purposes, plural. The film has no big Statement to make, and there's no final take home message. Hell, the life switch conceit doesn't even resolve itself; she leaves her characters in a state of even deeper confusion than they started out in. But what else is she supposed to do? Resolve the intractable Israel-Palestine issue? Like the characters, and for that matter the filmmakers behind this work, we live within the mania, mining it for smaller avenues of insight. 

The imbalance of power between the two women is one. Michal is an avowed feminist. She speaks fluent Arabic and spends days camped out at checkpoints as part of her work. But for all her good intentions, one angry phone call get's Nadine sacked, upending the life of someone Michal rose to fame defending. Similarly, the negative power of art is another subject broached. At point, Nadine has her headphones cut while crossing a checkpoint for fear that the wire was connected to a bomb. Later we meet a character who cooks live crabs not with boiling water but with music, believing that the vibrations emanating from his violin will soften and eventually melt the insides of the crustaceans, resulting in a much more succulent dish. Music, both performed and received, is imbued with a destructive power in Geffen's world.

At this point I should say that for all its heady intellectualism, Self Made is an extremely funny movie. As in great books, the film moves nimbly between the philosophical and the just plain funny. There is one bawdy set piece involving a virus-laden computer, a Skype call and online porn that had the audience roaring. 

The film does drop the light comic tone as it moves into sharper edged final act, but at ninety minutes it remains an easy, thoroughly engaging watch. Funny, well made and leaving you something to chew on? I couldn't recommend it more. 

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