A young married woman jeopardizes her well-ordered but fragile life for a fling with an older man in thesp Maria Schrader’s frustrating helming debut, co-produced under the X Filme shingle. Despite the Israeli setting, nary a word of Hebrew is heard in this intense world of disappointment and passion so bitter, its scalded inhabitants defy believability. Unable to summon the enthralling hothouse environment of Zeruya Shalev’s international bestseller, pic “Love Life” becomes an uneven family drama that fails to deliver the genuine relevations hinted at. Schizophrenic origin — German/Israeli coin, primarily English dialogue — makes pic’s target audience and prospects equally uncertain.
For setting mood, the opening can’t be beat, as Ya’ra (Netta Garti) prepares a birthday picnic where no one shows. A comparative religion major married to kind but bland Joni (Ishai Golan), Ya’ra feels trapped in a world that’s adequate, but no more. As usual, her vitriolic mom Hannah (Tovah Feldshuh) and nebbishy dad Leon (Stephen Singer) are too busy arguing to notice what their daughter is doing.
Along comes Arie (Rade Sherbedgia), an old friend of her parents’ who’s just back from decades in France. Ya’ra feels an immediate attraction to the older man, consummated in a nicely erotic scene when he discovers her wearing his trousers in a clothing-store fitting room. Ya’ra can’t verbalize why she’s so drawn to this man, but soon becomes reckless in her headlong obsession, which Arie humors in a mildly sadistic manner.
The nature of Arie’s relationship with Ya’ra’s parents remains unclear to the young woman: All she knows is that her mother loathes the guy, but then again, her mother loathes everyone and everything. Though she turns out to be the crux of the matter, Hannah is given so little to do that she loses any humanity underneath the bitterness.
Pic hints at expected revelations that are upended, and others, such as Ya’ra’s fear of buses, that remain unexplained. Was she on a bus when a suicide bomber hit, or does her phobia stem from a general awareness of the dangers of life in Jerusalem? Schrader (who starred in “Aimee & Jaguar”) successfully builds tension, especially in early scenes, but doesn’t seem to know where to go with it, and the screenplay does little to counter the notion that Ya’ra is simply a dissatisfied and annoying child.
Garti (“Turn Left at the End of the World”) does her best to create a real character, but her reckless infatuation doesn’t feel believably grounded. Unquestionably, it’s the charismatic Sherbedgia who holds “Love Life” together; with penetrating eyes that appear to have seen, and tired, of everything in life, his Arie is the perfect mixture of attraction and repulsion. Singer is merely a stereotypical weakling.
The decision to shoot pic in English (except for a few lines in French and a Hebrew prayer) makes it feel bizarrely artificial — who knew there were English lyrics to the Yiddish song “Chiribim, Chiribom”? Schrader uses lots of handheld to emphasize the instability, occasionally overdoing it with too frequent moves toward and away from characters.