QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
A playwright has died. His latest project is a modern adaptation of Medea. With the premiere of the play looming, a theatre troupe is now responsible to carry the torch in his absence. Aside from being widely respected for his talent, the writer, Assaf, is notorious for being a tenacious womaniser. He is married to the suave blue-eyed Natasha but has various affairs with other women around the city, the most serious of which is a relationship with his costume designer, Ella.
When he suddenly dies choking on Thai food, his departure brings forward an uneasy situation: he has left behind not one, but two widows: the official one, and the secret other. During the time of the Shiva, the seven days of mourning conducted in honour of Assaf’s memory, Ella, like a murderer coming back to the scene of the crime, attends every day of the ritual, wishing to express her grief along Assaf’s relatives. The others who work in the troupe sense that her recurrent appearance will provoke disastrous consequences, however, Ella strubbornly refuses to stay behind. She develops a strange relationship with the widow, Natasha, who gradually comes to look at her with growing suspicion – Ella knows exactly where the kettle and the tea are, she moves about Assaf and Natasha’s home with the smoothness and familiarity of someone who frequently spends time there. When questioned, or when signs of desperate grief overwhelm her, Ella is always able to come up with an amusing way of justifying her behaviour.
A remarkable scene shows Ella mourning, relentlessly shedding tears, wearing a black dress from which emerges a sculpture of white transparent tubes, traveling from her eyes all the way to the floor, giving the impression that her tears have materialised into a fountain of grief. This surrealist scene is quickly justified by the subsequent scene which embraces the film’s overall realist tone: we learn that the ‘mourning dress’ is the costume she has designed and fabricated for Medea’s final monologue. The tubes emerge from the dress by forming a suspended eruption of tears, like a volcano of congealed eye-water. ‘It represents her emotional outburst’, she claims to the stage director who would rather she had designed a ‘simple black dress’.
With this sequence, it seems the film is critiquing artists who are not brave enough to embrace experimental or ‘outlandish’ ideas. To honour this point, the filmmaker constructs a series of brief sequences which precisely attempt to showcase a style that is formally innovative. These include the dream shots on the theatre stage, moments when Ella is battling against an army of invasive black dresses, or when she is lost on the surface of an endless bed whose wrinkling fabric looks like the sea. Although these are stylistic outbursts that defy the language of realism, one wishes the filmmaker Ma’ayan Rypp had paid further attention to her own critique of the fearful director unwilling to play with representation, for the rest of the film is unfortunately lacking in experimentation and innovation.
A good performance from Dana Ivgy conveys a character at the same time quiet, quirky, but also stubborn and outspoken. The film unveils a soft commentary on the ways in which illicit lovers (mistresses or boyfriends) can be looked upon by society. But a certain lack of depth on the part of her character is not ameliorated by the somewhat idealistic portrayal of the man, successful writer and talented charmer. Indeed, the script flirts too much with the hagiographic genre, instead of showing a sobering dose of criticism turning Assaf into a more convincing character. The film also ends in an abrupt symbolic way, lacking in psychological concreteness.
On a final note, The Other Widow is a refreshing take on grief which playfully lingers at the intersection between drama and comedy. It sets up an interesting dynamic between two grieving lovers, both suffering from being torn halves of a picture, torn sides of a same lover. However, a more pronounced authorial stance could have elevated a film which sadly lacks creative energy. The language of cinema should be challenged, especially by up-and-coming filmmakers who should stop excessively relying on tired convention. I am thinking, for instance, of the creative energy of Bergman’s Persona, which imagined new ways of depicting a tense and intricate relationship between two women (one of them, incidently, being a stage performer who has lost the ability to speak).
The Other Widow has just premiered at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.