Heart-broken in Tel Aviv
by David Lamble
Israeli director Eytan Fox's Yossi is the powerfully moving yet understated sequel to his 2003 tragic gay romance set on a battlefield Yossi & Jagger. In Yossi (opening at Landmark Cinemas), Fox raises the stakes for his depressed survivor, while expanding on his story's parallels to the restless cowboys of Brokeback Mountain.
Based on events from the War in Lebanon, Yossi & Jagger thrust us into the beehive of a co-ed Israeli Army platoon patrolling a dangerous slice of the Golan Heights, bordering Syria. Anticipating Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, the American-born Fox brought a two-year clandestine gay affair between the closeted Yossi and the more accepting, rock-star handsome Jagger to an equally grim climax. Yossi & Jagger ended with the clinically depressed Yossi preparing to hunker down at medical school, and in a stint as a Tel Aviv heart surgeon.
The sequel opens as our now-pudgy doctor Yossi (Ohad Knoller) is awoken from a nap by a shy hospital receptionist with more than a slight crush on him. The woman's passive-aggressive invite for a "romantic" theatre date is rudely interrupted by Yossi's womanizing buddy, Moti. Moti is a believable chauvinist essayed with diabolic glee by Lior Ashkenazi. He's the devil seducing Yossi into a pub-crawling "boys night out" that deepens his funk over the loss of Jagger, and threatens the last remnants of his self-respect. Fleeing Moti's debauchery, Yossi sends a dated sexy photo of himself to a cynical bar owner, who rips him for "cyberdate fraud."
It's at this low ebb that our miserable guy hatches a plot to steal back his soul. In a scene that's a parallel universe to Brokeback 's third-act confrontation between Ennis and his dead lover Jack's American Gothic parents, Yossi sits in the same tidy living room where a decade earlier he sat Shiva with Jagger's parents, and proceeds to replace the myth of Jagger's "Army girlfriend" with the implacable reality of himself, the doctor.
"I was with him when he died. I held his hand. I begged him not to close his eyes. I leaned over and kissed him; his lips were still warm. I didn't care that there were people around, I said, 'I love you.' Not a day goes by that I don't wonder whether he heard me, if he knew."
It's at the moment where Yossi is sitting in his dead lover's bedroom that the emotional arcs of Yossi and Brokeback Mountain diverge. While Ennis will forever sit in our hearts doubly cursed, Annie Prouix's eternally grieving lover and Larry McMurtry's marginal "cowboy in suburbia," Fox gives his paunchy doughboy an unexpected third-act reprieve. Driving south towards Sinai, Yossi spies five hot Israeli soldiers wolfing down a junk-food lunch. The guys are so into their physical pranks that they miss their bus. Yossi offers to pack the boys into his hatchback like succulent sardines. When he leaves his dead lover's room, Yossi is existentially free. The five soldiers neither know nor care about his limbo, about the links between his old platoon and these sassy, rude boys.
Fox uses a cultural joke to make the point. Driving through the desert, the soldiers ask him to put on some music. Yossi obliges with Mahler, the movement many of us associate with the soundtrack from Death in Venice. Bad choice! Told who this gloomy Gus is, one of the soldiers asks, "Miller?" These guys are Philistines, and proudly so. It's as if Yossi ran into our beloved SF Giants heroes, as if Tim, Matt, Buster, Pablo and Madison were in that tiny car, just looking to chill.
Photo: Strand Releasing
One of the hitchhikers is a pushy, totally out gay boy, Tom (Oz Zehavi). Sensing Yossi is depressed but clueless as to why, Tom suggests that he take a relaxing massage. Tom might just as well be speaking Swahili, and the balance of the movie is spent with these obstinate dudes fighting along the pleasure/pain divide.
The New York Times damns Yossi "as a soft feel-good fantasy of romantic salvation." Wrong! Yossi & Jagger (2003) was a low-budget miracle, a 65-minute tragedy as lean and dramatically satisfying as a Golden Age TV drama. Yossi follows a decade of awe-inspiring gay rights advances. Would a depressed, damaged and deeply closeted soul like Yossi thrive in this new era? Yossi is Fox's optimistic, emotionally satisfying answer, offering his gay Job a well-deserved second chance at not only love, but life itself.
My chat with Eytan Fox followed his mad sprint across Paris, where he's completing Cup Cakes, a large-scale musical.
David Lamble: I loved how Yossi is so entertaining as a stand-alone story, and how with Yossi & Jagger it becomes an intensely personal epic. Why extend the story a decade later?
Photo: Strand Releasing
Eytan Fox: I had guilty feelings about leaving Yossi in that unresolved place 10 years ago. It was a therapeutic thing, I could go back 15 years into my past, to see where I was, which issues I resolved and which I'm still working on.
There's a brilliant scene of Yossi confronting Jagger's mother, a smart allusion to Brokeback Mountain.
I was reversing the classic cliche where it's the mother who's more accepting. Today, often it's the fathers who find it easier.
You pull off the trick of having Yossi get a second stab at happiness late in the movie.
I started therapy when I was in the Israeli Army. I was dealing with the tough experience of being an openly gay guy in the Israeli Army in the early 80s, with a war going on. The word "gay" didn't exist. We're taking Yossi through therapy, he's post-traumatic and he doesn't want to deal with that. Eventually he realizes he can't sweep it under the carpet. Part of that is going to Jagger's parents, saying this is who I was, this is who your son was. Then he can go on to the next phase, being pursued by a much younger man. You go through very difficult places in order to reach much better places.