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Foxtrot: Square dances in round holes

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- VENICE 2017: Samuel Maoz’s new movie tells three stories preoccupied with young Israeli conscripts, the Holocaust and the country’s uneasy relationship with its neighbours

Review

Eight years after he set his Golden Lion-winning Lebanon [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
entirely within the confines of a tank, Samuel Maoz directs another claustrophobic, tense film that is playing in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Foxtrot [+see also:
trailer
film focus
interview: Samuel Maoz
film profile
]
tells three stories preoccupied with young Israeli conscripts, the Holocaust and the country’s uneasy relationship with its neighbours. Each section has its own unique style. The first takes place in an apartment building, where the atmosphere is nauseous and full of grief after some parents receive the tragic news that their son has died whilst on military duty. The second tale is located at an unspecified checkpoint in the desert, where four young conscripts watch as camels and a few Arabs in cars pass by, and it’s quirky and humorous. Then, for the third part, the tone is bittersweet, as we are back with the parents reminiscing about the past over late-night cakes.

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It takes a warped mind to sandwich the tragedy and sombreness of Three Colours: Blue with the absurdist tone of an Aki Kaurismäki comedy, but Maoz is at pains to show that even when characters live under a permanent dark cloud, there are also moments of laughter.

Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler play the parents, Michael and Dafna, coming to terms with the news that their son has “fallen” while serving the Israeli military. There is no body, and a lack of information about the death frustrates them. The sense of bewilderment is enhanced by the work of DoP Giora Bejach, which makes everything in the apartment look like a prison. He zooms his camera into abstract art on the wall and shoots the characters with close-ups that make the frame a straightjacket.

The dialogue has plenty of implied criticism of the Israeli state, especially when the procedure for a soldier’s funeral is explained and it seems that the government is more concerned with its own image than the emotional wellbeing of the parents. The conversation is tragicomic and insensitive, rather than patriotic.

For the four young men at the checkpoint, Maoz uses quirky humour to show how unstable their lives are. Although they are bored, they fear that their lives could end at any moment. The boys amuse themselves by playing a game, rolling a can across an uneven floor that is slowly sinking into the soil. There are moments of surreal brilliance: an amazing solo dance scene, a demonstration of the foxtrot that is used to emphasise the circle of life. The hyper-real visuals reinforce the fact that this is a reality that should not be considered normal. The boys tell stories of their parents and grandparents, and behind it all, almost as if it is the start of history, is the Holocaust. It’s an inescapable collective trauma, governing all of the lives we see on screen; the point at which everything begins and, possibly, ends.

Maoz has made a film with many moments of heart-breaking brilliance, but he also makes the plot veer in so many different directions until it eventually spins out of control. The tonal shifts are brave but not always satisfactory, especially in an animated sequence recalling the Holocaust, where the visuals are vulgar and heavy-handed. Despite being one of the most beguiling and ambitious films of the year, Foxtrot is occasionally infuriating because Maoz tries to pull the rug from under the audience’s feet too many times, and at other moments, the film trips over itself like a dancer with two left feet with its over-reliance on coincidence.

The Match Factory is handling sales for this German-French-Israeli co-production.

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