A Tale of Love and Darkness
When Bret Easton Ellis wrote American Psycho, he intended to call out the dark underbelly of ’80s American greed. And he did, but there was a certain hypermasculine current he could never quite excise from his writing. When Mary Harron adapted Ellis’ novel into her film, she took the opportunity to lay bare how ridiculous Ellis could be, in a way that Roger Avary wasn’t really able to do with The Rules of Attraction.
I mention this, because I think that Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness represents a similar opportunity for a female director to compensate for the astigmatism a male author wrote into his source, but this time the opportunity has been missed.
To be sure, I don’t at all mean to impugn the talents of Amos Oz as a writer or a memoirist. Indeed, there are moments where Portman manages to touch on the haunting lyricism of his prose. The man is a consummate fabulist and storyteller, and in part the movie touches on how he learned these skills at his mother’s knee. But in writing a memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem during the time that overlapped both the founding of Israel and his mother’s untimely death, Oz necessarily writes from the perspective of that doting child, and the story can feel more like an Oedipal fantasy.
Portman has the chance, both as adapter and as the actress playing this role, to inject a more realistic portrayal of Fania Mussman Klausner as a woman. She forgoes this chance, seemingly out of fidelity to Oz’ writing, and possibly out of the mistaken belief that to correct his perspective as a man would be somehow disrespectful of him as an Israeli or a Jew.
Instead of focusing on the woman that Oz’ memoir points to, the movie focuses on the young Oz, then Amos Klausner (Amir Tessler). We see him learn about words from his struggling academic father, Arieh (Gilad Kahana), and stories from his mother. We see the birth of Israel from his vantage, informed by his mother’s fantasies about a Zionist renaissance man. This pioneer in an ancient land — as at home in the fields as the battlefield, yet also intelligent and sensitive — was a far cry from Arieh’s bookish, wan Lithuanian stock. And despite changing his name and joining a kibbutz, Oz eventually realized he wasn’t cut out to be this Sabra superman either.
But while I can see a young woman cherishing her romantic ideals, I can’t quite accept the idea that she mourned them so tragically in her late thirties that she couldn’t bear to go on. The story Oz tells of his mother’s depression — at least as Portman recounts it — comes off as a simplistic projection of his own doubts and fears. And, by extension, the hopes and fears of the Ashkenazi immigrants about their new endeavor, as seen in retrospect by a man writing it at half a century’s remove.
That part of the story is fine. The foundational history and mythology of the modern state of Israel is one that could stand to be told more often. But when a real woman is turned into a metaphor as a tool for telling this story, there ought to be some push-back that turns her back into a fully-realized person instead of a child’s memory.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.