Movie review: Sublet #queerscreen

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Getting lost in life is easier and far more common than we might suppose.

In a world filled with definitive answers (not all of them right, of course), exhortations to be yourself and a sense that anything is possible, many people feel guilty when they feel adrift as if being uncertain, lost, sad or rudderless are some sort of unforgivable human failing.

In Sublet, directed by Eytan Fox, who also co-wrote the film with Itay Segal, two men, a generation apart but lost in their own way, face up to the fact that they need each other more than they might care to admit.

The older man, New York Times travel writer Michael (John Benjamin Hickey), is reeling from a recent tragedy, one that he’s trying to get past by pretending it’s all in the past, something he has buried and now forgotten.

But it’s clear there is a vast gulf between this errant self-talk and Michael’s emotional reality as he wanders around Tel Aviv, Israel, seemingly unsure of what to do next and palpably unable to interact with the world around him in any meaningful way.

This is most clearly evident just after he’s arrived at the apartment he has sublet from film student Tomer (Niv Nissim), an endearingly pretentious young man who makes “artistic horror” which is, he points out, what you make of it, only to find out his landlord has got the days wrong and think it’s still yesterday.

While Tomer races to clean up the flat, filled with detritus from two days of nonstop filming, Michael watches listlessly, clearly unhappy and halfheartedly talking about booking into a hotel but unable to summon the wherewithal to act on what he’s saying.

He’s a man who’s clearly unmoored by grief, unable to find his way back to an equilibrium with his husband David (Peter Spears) and unsure of how to even execute on his article which is all about finding the hidden and contrary aspects of life in Tel Aviv.

(image via YouTube courtesy Greenwich Entertainment)

In the unlikeliest of connections, unlikely since the initial meeting between Michael and Tomer doesn’t inspire confidence they will eventually hit it off – less because of any antagonism or personality clashes and more Michael’s inability to life himself from the emotional morass that has claimed him almost completely – the two men at completely different stages of their life actually do forge a bond.

It’s borne of Michael’s loneliness and Tomer’s need for a relationship that goes beyond the superficial hook ups he claims are all he really needs – he is, it turns out in one crucial beach scene more of a romantic than he lets on – and so, together, they actually accomplish what Michael could on his own which is to orient him back to his true north.

In keeping with the film’s overall meditative melancholy sensibility, much of the conversation between Michael and Tomer is low key and unhurried as they wander through Tel Aviv sampling its food, drink, social life, beach scene, the sorts of places Michael professed he wanted to go but had been left off his list in favour of the usual museums, art galleries and so forth.

Tomer not only completely re-invents Michael’s fairly pedestrian if mainstream list of attractions to take in, but he also reinvigorates Michael too with the bond between these two lost men becoming far deeper and more profound than either expects when a lonely Michael almost begs Tomer to join him for dinner.

In amongst the connection that forms between the two men, there is a sexual tension brewing too, one that comes about less you suspect because of lust but because of the need they both have to connect with someone on a far deeper level.

Neither man is where he wants to be, and while there is no question Michael will go home to David, whom he quite clearly loves, it is apparent that neither one will leave the other unaffected and that some substantial change is in the offing, the kind that resets and renews things in ways that will transform each of their lives.

(image via YouTube courtesy Greenwich Entertainment)

Sublet is a beautifully subversive film, possessing the kind of quietly powerful storytelling that could be mistaken at first glance as not going anywhere particularly meaningful or long-lasting, but which is anything but as the story builds upon itself with layer after moving layer.

The film’s great power comes from the fact that there is no great epiphany that takes place for either men.

Hollywood might love those kind of big, inspirationally flamboyant moments but the truth is that real life doesn’t work that way with epiphanies, if they turn up at all, more likely to sneak up on you, whisper in your ear and slowly nudge you onto another unexpected path.

It’s not dramatic in the conventional sense and yet it is, with Michael and Tomer covering some fairly intense and necessary territory in five days that are ostensibly about exploring the heart of Tel Aviv but which come to mean so much more.

The joy of Sublet is that it is content for the story to take its time, for the two men to grow closer and closer in an organic and believable way and for the healing both need to happen in ways that surprise them with its extent and the fact that it has arisen in a wholly unexpected context.

In amongst all this personal exploration, Sublet does touch on the generational divide between the two men – Tomer can’t understand why older gay men are so obsessed with the AIDS crisis while Michael makes it clear he lived it and it defined who he, and a generation, are – and the racial issues that cloud Israeli society, represented by Tomer’s avant garde dance best friend Daria (Lihi Kornowski) and her Palestinian boyfriend.

But Sublet is on the whole an exquisitely well-executed story of two men lost in life and from themselves who in ways small and big, unexpected and very much needed, find their way back to some sense of what life is meant to be, with Michael in particular renewed in a way that sends him back home a new man and ready for the next chapter in his life.

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