Ten years ago, Yossi Guttman (Ohad Knoller) was a young Israeli soldier commanding a squadron of soldiers in a combat zone on the border of Lebanon. He was also in a secret romantic relationship with his second in command, Lior, a.k.a. Jagger, who would ultimately be killed in an explosion during a late-night ambush. Today, at age thirty-four, Yossi is a successful but socially isolated cardiologist in Tel Aviv. His home life, what little of it we see, has been reduced to a monotonous cycle of eating fast food in silence, channel surfing on the couch with his eyes at half-mast, and masturbating to gay porn on the internet. There are two basic reasons he lives in solitude, both of which are understandable: (1) He remains by and large closeted; (2) Jagger’s death continues to haunt him.
2003’s Yossi & Jagger was a critically-acclaimed film I found to be insufferable, not because of its themes but because director Eytan Fox applied said themes to a narrative that was contrived and melodramatic. Now we have the sequel, Yossi, which has also been directed by Fox. While certainly a great improvement over its predecessor, especially in the technical department, it still isn’t good enough to recommend. What we have here is a film at odds with itself – a terrific character study adrift in a manufactured plot that yet again relies on contrivances and melodrama. It wants to be taken seriously, and yet it behaves in such a way that it’s often times impossible for an audience to do so.
To be clear, the title character is compelling. The story he inhabits, however, isn’t. Part of the problem is that Fox forces homoeroticism into scenes where it’s not needed. This is not only visually distracting, it also reduces the potential for emotional resonance. Consider a scene where Yossi is at the home of a successful bar owner, the two having met on a social dating website; even though the bar owner is always soft-spoken and flirtatious, not to mention rather pretentious in regards to a bottle of red wine, the upshot is that he flatly rejects Yossi because he uploaded an outdated picture of himself on the site. We should be feeling the sting right along with Yossi, and yet we don’t, simply because the bar owner answers the door wearing only a towel, having just gotten out of the shower, and spends the rest of the scene in nothing but a pair of jeans.
Mostly, however, the problem stems from Fox’s overreliance on romantic conventions, ones that might have been original at some point in the history of narrative tradition but are now so overused that they inspire more groans than sighs. When Yossi decides to take the luxury-resort vacation Jagger had dreamed of taking, for example, not only does he meet four young men that need a lift, they also happen to be soldiers on leave – and one of them, Tom (Oz Zehavi), is openly gay. As it turns out, he’s also a fan of the same pop singer Jagger was a fan of. If this were any more coincidental, it would be a pulp mystery novel. Nevertheless, you can see the wheels turning, here; by meeting Tom, Yossi is taking those first painful steps towards allowing himself to love someone again. In a more mature story, this would mean something. Here, the message is overshadowed by storytelling tactics that are at best second-tier.
I’m wondering how much better the film would have been had Fox jettisoned the manufactured romance with Tom and instead focused on Yossi’s personal development. An early subplot gives the impression that Fox was headed in that direction. In it, Yossi immediately recognizes his newest patient, a woman named Varda (Orly Silbersatz), as Jagger’s mother. She doesn’t recognize him, but then again, she never had the chance to properly meet Yossi, not even at Jagger’s wake. In the decade since his death, she has remained under the impression that Jagger had a girlfriend; when Yossi formally introduces himself, he must make the difficult decision to admit that he and her son were lovers. I think this would have been a much more satisfying and plausible avenue for Fox to explore: A grieving mother and her awkward relationship with the man her son fell in love with.
Alas, the Varda character is dropped from the story almost as soon as she’s introduced, clearly because Fox was more interested in the romantic tension between Yossi and Tom – tension that has been summoned out of thin air and is released through fantasy. Movies like this are frustrating because they’re obviously being torn apart from the inside out. On the one hand, Yossi takes great interest in its title character and tries to develop him in a way an audience can appreciate. On the other hand, we’re aware that his development is at the mercy of a hopelessly mechanical plot, which is at times structured and scripted with the same one-track mindedness of erotica. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with erotica. What I’m saying is that the narrative and artistic goals of erotica are not consistent with a film like Yossi, which aims to actually tell a story.
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