In the slums of Tel Aviv, a disturbing tale of Beauty meeting the Beast
Though the film “Woman Alive” may be a retread of themes we’ve seen before, it is cinematically riveting — from its imagery to most seminally, its ambience, which evokes a marginalized, nihilistic world. It marks an impressive narrative debut for its director Macabit Abramson, who is best known for her documentaries and experimental aesthetic.
Jerusalem-based 30-year-old Shlomit (Lihi Zemel, who is Abramson’s daughter), is a disaffected lost soul, devoid of purpose and identity. Her voice-over recounts her listless existence. She abandons her husband, small daughter and middle-class life to wander the slums of South Tel Aviv, where she encounters the other Israel: downtrodden African immigrants, hustlers, hookers and, most central, Lev (Sasha Okun), an aging, pretentious artist whose views on life and art might have sounded cool and provocative in 1968. For reasons that are not entirely clear she is seduced by him; if nothing else, one supposes, he is far removed from her uptight husband. She disrobes, poses for him and, predictably enough, a sexual encounter ensues. Their sex is brutal and unsatisfying.
She is repelled yet compulsively drawn to Lev who says she is nothing more than one of his many sexual play-things. His paintings of women testify to his feelings of contempt for women. They are grotesques, their massive bodies distorted, their expressions twisted and tormented. Some are self-loathing beggars, their arms outstretched in supplication. Inspired by him or, arguably, her own latent and repressed artistic impulses that have been awakened (that’s what Abramson wants us to believe), Shlomit takes brush to canvas forging a portrait of Lev that captures his cruelty.
Regrettably, this is a familiar and somewhat tired story of a woman who, oppressed by convention and patriarchy, embarks on a quest to “find herself.” Shlomit’s journey to self-discovery entails spiraling downward into a nightmarish rabbit hole where, fully liberated, she revels in taboos, chaos and self-destruction. She incrementally loses her mind, hearing voices or perhaps recalling voices from past conversations urging her to seize her creative soul. As presented, her trip to the abyss is a necessary one. Then, and only then, can she reclaim herself and become whole. In one of the more striking scenes, Shlomit is living homeless on a garbage-strewn street; in the background a rat scurries by. Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” serves as the soundscape. Metaphors and symbolism abound.
Abramson has said this film grew out of her dissertation, “The New Psyche in the Movies: Journey against a Dark Man,” which explored the Eros and Psyche myth in various movies, specifically the ways in which a gentle female character journeys to the beast (e.g., “Beauty and the Beast,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “King Kong”) and in so doing uncovers her own inner beast, her imaginative spirit. At times, a voice (not sure whose) narrates the Eros and Psyche legend as if reciting a fairy tale to a child.
One of the most intriguing things about the film is the fact that Zemel is Abramson’s daughter. It’s an unusual collaboration and an expression of the deepest mutual trust. Some of the scenes are unsettlingly gritty and sexually graphic, yet they are fully credible. No awkwardness is evident.
The most vivid and evocative sequences of the film come at its conclusion as the universe Shlomit inhabits morphs into a netherworld that is no longer tethered to a daylight reality. Set in the pre-dawn hours, these scenes — particularly one involving a mother-daughter prostitute team — are especially effective and memorable. The homoerotic moments between Shlomit and the daughter, a morbidly obese woman, suggests a Diane Arbus photograph that is at once dissonant and poignant. Throughout, the film touches on strong bonds between women and these fleeting relationships are convincing in no small measure thanks to Zemel who never strikes a false note in a role that could have easily bordered on a psychiatric case study.
I would be very interested in seeing Zemel tackle a range of roles working with or without mom. Both she and Abramson are artists worth watching.
Simi Horwitz won a 2018 Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her Forward story, “Ruchie Freier: Hasidic Judge, American Trailblazer.” She received two 2020 New York Press Club Awards, three 2021 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, and a 2021 Simon Rockower Award. She came in first place at the 2021 SoCal Journalism Awards (given by the LA Press Club) for her Forward story, “Gloria Steinem Is Having a Moment.”