Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Sheer Delight: Eytan Fox’s Cupcakes

Of late, Eytan Fox, Israel’s finest filmmaker (Yossi & Jagger, 2002), Walk on Water, 2004), seems to be juggling light and heavy topics in his work. His tragic love story The Bubble (2006), chronicling a fraught romance between two men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, was followed by Mary Lou (2009), his made- for-TV frothy musical/drama about a lovelorn drag queen. And Yossi (2012), his sad but hopeful sequel to Yossi & Jagger precedes his latest movie Cupcakes (2013), a bouncy and utterly joyous film about an amateur group of singers who set out to win an international song contest with a simple tune crafted when one of their group has her husband leave her.
That aspect of the story sounds depressing but Cupcakes is deliberately staying away from a downbeat theme, or for that matter, from the political end of things – Israel, even now during its war with Hamas, cannot be defined solely by politics – in favour of a positive message about staying true to yourself and following your dreams. If this were an American movie, you can imagine how sentimental and predictable it might have turned out to be. But Israeli cinema does not traffic in such obvious formulas and Cupcakes never strikes a false or corny note. No surprise there as Fox remains one of the most consistent movie-makers around.
Director Eytan Fox with Cupcakes star Ofer Schecter 
Cupcakes begins when our group of neighbours and friends gathers to watch the annual UniverSong music contest wherein singers or bands from around the world compete for the song of the year. (It’s based on the (in)famous Eurovision song contest which Israel won in 1998 with Dana International’s song "Diva," a win that became known worldwide because the singer was also a transsexual. Israel actually won that contest three times in all over the years. The famous Swedish pop band ABBA also came to prominence when they won the Eurovision title in 1974.) When Anat (Anat Waxman), a baker whose husband, fed up with her ‘controlling’ ways, leaves her, the rest of the friends try to cheer her up when she states that she feels too old and ugly. Just riffing actually, they come up with the sweet and tender “A Song for Anat” (contributed by Babydaddy aka Scott Hoffman from the band Scissor Sisters), a tune that comes to the attention of the Israeli committee in charge of submissions to UniverSong. But just because the song is destined for the contest doesn’t mean that all is smooth sailing, both in the protagonists’ personal lives and in the attempt by the committee to mould the group, named Anat-Ofar after Anat’s bakery, into a more flamboyant version of themselves on the assumption that schmaltz is the path to victory.

The beauty of Cupcakes lies not just in the unerringly fine direction of Fox (who co-wrote the film with Eli Bijaoui) who knows how to guide a story, but in the pitch perfect performances of the talented cast, a mix of movie veterans and TV actors. They’re not types – even if on paper they might read that way – but fully fleshed out characters you’ll care about, and once they get to the UniverSong show, you'll root for them with all your heart. Smartly, Fox and Bijaoui position them in differing ways as they react to the possibility of going to Paris (where else?) for the finals. (Each of the actors has the same first name as their character.) Dana (Dana Ivgy) is adamant she won’t participate since it’s frivolous and an act that her Orthodox dad would not approve of her doing. (She’s also worried about the negative reaction of her overbearing boss, who happens to be Israel’s Minister of Culture). Yael (Yael Bar-Zohar), a former beauty queen turned lawyer (and involved with her married boss, played by Fox stalwart Lior Ashkenazi (Walk on Water, Yossi)) isn’t sure this is a step a professional like her should take. Alternative singer Efrat (Efrat Dor) sneers at the commercial ‘poppishness’ of the song and the contest as a whole. Shy blogger Keren (Keren Berger) is scared to take a chance and Anat, the impetus for all this, doesn’t exactly want the whole world to know her troubles since the song has an autobiographical tinge to it. She’s also trying to deal with a hostile teenage son who blames her for his father’s abrupt departure. (Waxman has a lovely scene in the movie where the French presenter of UniverSong’s TV broadcast, real life presenter Edouard Baer, expresses interest in her. Her reaction to something she could barely imagine – her self image is shot, after all  is touching and very genuine.) Only Ofer (Ofer Schecter), the one male in the group, is flamboyantly gung ho. However, despite being an out gay man, his lover (Alon Levi), scion and face of a family business whose hummus is known nationwide, is still closeted, a fact that adds to Ofer's stress even as he tries to galvanize the reluctant others to commit to this musical journey.

Ofer in drag in Cupcakes.
It’s not spoiling anything to reveal that everyone eventually wants in since the joy of Cupcakes is not in the plotting, which is fairly predictable, but in the naturalness and believability of how Fox and company lay out the film’s trajectory and each character’s change of heart. (Fox knows his subject well, having covered Eurovision as a young reporter in 1979 when Israel hosted the event. He also directed the musical segment of the Israeli group PingPong, the country's entry in Eurovision 2000. Eurovision also played a key part in Fox’s sweet gay coming of age short film Gotta Have Heart (1997)) Cupcakes is also illuminating as a portrait of Israel’s accepting attitudes as Ofer’s obvious homosexuality – he even dons drag when he teaches his nursery school class, with no ramifications – is not an issue for the yarmulke wearing head of the Israeli UniverSong committee. Ironically, though, his attempt to mould the group into a more outrageous outfit plays into gay campy stereotypes. Much of Cupcakes, of course, could be compared, as many critics have, to the films of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, though except for the gay content, you could argue that the movie’s mix of candy coloured imagery/cinematography and strong female characters goes all the way back, at least, to Jacques Demy’s classic French spoken musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). More significantly, unlike Almodovar, who’s long been spinning his creative wheels, whether tackling drama (The Skin I Live In), or comedy (I’m so Excited), Fox still manages to keep things fresh. He also throws in some subtle trenchant commentary when he makes the married male half of a musical duo – UniverSong’s favoured front runners – a closet case. It’s no accident that he’s also a representative of anti-gay Russia. I suspect, too, that the portrayal of the country’s Culture Minister, a vapid, superficial woman who bends whichever way the (cultural and political) winds blow, is someone Fox has encountered at some time or another in his career.

I don’t want to overstate Cupcakes’ virtues – it’s not nearly as probing a critique/view of Israel as Fox’s Walk on Water or The Bubble were. It’s not trying to be. But it has a point, hearkening back to a more innocent view of Israel as a place where neighbours actually banded together and helped each other through adversity. And while Fox isn’t doing anything new with his story, what’s he done here, he’s done uncommonly well. Cupcakes is pure fun.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years that began on May 9 at Ryerson.

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