For those who don’t know Antarctica is the sophmore effort of Israeli director Yair Hochner. Hochner, like Eytan Fox, is re/defining queer film in Israel. Both his movies, Good Boys (which I found disturbing and heartbreaking) and Antarctica have been the talk of the festival circuit since their releases. Hochner has also been instrumental in founding the first annual LGBTQI Film Festival in Telaviv, now on its third year.
Hochner’s movies are hauntingly beautiful and impossible to view only once. In fact, I have watched Antarctica no less than seven times in the last month and am currently going through unhappy withdrawal now that Here network is no longer screening it. I meant to write a review of the film while it was still available through Here online, but every time I sat down to watch it for the review, I simply got re-enthralled and found it hard to flatten the film out on paper.
Regular readers know that my film reviews try to be as in depth as possible and to avoid gushing because I want them to be useful to independent filmmakers who often link here to promote their films and documentaries. So I think you also know how good I think this movie is given that I’m telling you what a whack-a-mole I’ve been since not having instant access to it.
This trailer really doesn’t do the film justice; it is so much more than your average “who ends up with who” romantic comedy.
The story centers around Omer and Danny and their intersecting lives. When we first meet Danny, he is a newly out dancer with a crush on established dance icon Boaz. Unfortunately for Danny, Boaz “never” sleeps with the same man twice and prefers it if they are gone before he wakes up in the morning. Through a fluke involving a kitty, Omer leaves Boaz’s apartment before they hook up and just in time to set the stage for Danny to move in. Despite this mini-miracle, Danny’s thirty off-screen days with Boaz leave him broken and wounded.
The film begins in earnest three years later, when Danny, now an up and coming star in the dance world, is living with his ex-boyfriend Ronen. Ronen is looking for the real thing while working on a story about alien abductees for an article for the newspaper for which he writes. For some reason, he thinks he’ll find it online even tho he has already found it in the form of the young man he watches, and who watches him, at the library where he does his research. That young man, is Omer.
In the two days before Omer’s thirtieth birthday, Danny and Omer’s lives will intertwine around both Boaz and Ronen as well as Omer’s bestfriend, and Ronen’s internet hook up, Miki. (Miki, played by Yuval Raz, should be recognizable to fans of Good Boys. For people like me, traumatized by what happens to him in that movie and what it costs, it is nice to see him playing someone happy and trauma free.)
In a parallel story, Omer’s sister Shirley tries to pick up and reimagine her own life after canceling her wedding. Shirley works as a waitress in a gay and lesbian bar owned by Michal. In another off-screen romance that predates the timeframe of the film, Shirley and Michal fell in love. Michal wants desperately to create a life with Shirley that centers around her bar, the women who sing amazing folk songs in it, and the men and women who hookup there. While Shirley cares deeply for Michal, her newfound desire is like a door to infinite possibilities that she wants to step through and find herself inside. She explains this to Michal with simple question from which this film derives its title, “Will you go with me to Antarctica?”
This question has so many meanings in the film. On the one hand, it represents the different stages that the characters are in, in their lives. Danny, Shirley, and Miki are all young queer people exploring what it means to be out. Danny’s path is tragic, partially because of his own naivete and partially because he lacks the initiative Shirley and Miki have in the film. Shirley gives up what might be true love to find herself, but she is blessed enough to have Michal, who promises to love her no matter how far she goes or who she becomes. In a way, Shirley and Danny are mirrors of each other, illustrating what could happen if Shirley got stuck in one place instead of trusting herself to grow.
Miki, on other hand, is like neither of them. He is the young, flamboyant, guy who claims to attract everyone he wants and be bored with anyone who wants to much from him. He is shallow and plastic on the outside, but soon discovers that he wants more than retail and clubbing. He isn’t exactly ready for it when it comes, but I think the events in Miki’s life during this film, actually turn on a light that will ultimately compete with the strobe lights still flicking happily to the thump-a-thump in his head.
The older characters in the film are no less sorted when the movie begins. Despite his established writing career, well-traveled soul, and sense of direction in his life, Ronen is still looking for love in all the wrong places. At the very beginning of the film he hooks up with Boaz in a montage of Boaz’s one night stands. While Ronen leaves Biaz’s bed disgusted by his indifference, it does not stop him from hooking up with obviously incompatible Miki over the internet three years later. Though Ronen’s relationship with Miki seems more like a series of odd circumstances, in which they continue to hook up because of bumping into each other or needing companionship to a critical event in the film, Ronen still remains loyal to him even when his heart tells him that Omer is the one.
Omer, on the other hand, prefers his books to real relationships. While he does meet and go home with Boaz, presumable after encountering him at Michal’s bar, he doesn’t actually hookup with him. Their hookup ends abruptly when Omer figures out just how shallow Boaz actually appears to be. And even though he spends his days reciprocating interested glances from Ronen in the library, he continues to go on a series of unsuccessful and dangerous blind dates instead of making a move.
Omer and Danny go out for a while, but both seem to know it is just a relationship of convenience. Danny thinks Omer is too old and stuffy, and his heart is still broken and slightly attached to both Ronen and Boaz; Omer thinks Danny is an experienced kid. Omer’s other blind date is equally fruitless. He meets with abudding serial killer who both belongs in a completely different film and yet is woven seamlessly into Antarctica by Hochner’s pure craft as a director. Like Good Boys, Hochner’s Antarctica refuses to paint a picture of queer community minus the threats that surround it.
Even when Ronen finally does get up the nerve to ask Omer to accompany him on an interview, Omer’s wariness of real life almost stops it from happening. Their exchange in the car about whether or not to go off with strangers both highlights the risk one has to take to find love on the margins and the longing that both of them have for a simple, real, connection. While they go about their lives differently, the symbolism of books, aliens and alienation, and furtive connections surround them both throughout the film.
Boaz, Michal, and Eiten round out the older cast as well-developed but less complex characters. Boaz is the non-commital one who appears to be trying to fill the void that losing his place as the hot, praised, dancing star has left inside him. Michal is the loyal, pillar of the queer community, whose bar provides a relaxed place for the community to find itself and each other. And Eiten is the somewhat snarky man who ultimately ends up playing a pivotal role in Danny and Boaz’s lives.
The question about Antarctica is also at its most basic about the role of travel and displacement in these characters lives. Boaz, Ronen, and Omer have all left Israel at some point in their lives. Having been somewhere else has helped shape the way they see themselves and Israel. Their travel is both a comment on the nation, as a place made up of immigrants and refugees bound by the marginalization of global antisemitism (which in no way is a comment on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within Israel), and on the queer community which is often made up of immigrants (people who move from rural to urban centers as well as across real and imagined borders) and refugees (people who have been exiled from their families, towns, churches, etc) bound by the marginalization of homophobia. In the latter, the promise of traveling to global queerscapes like London reflect a mythic sense of queer community in which Ronen and Omer will find true love and Boaz perpetual adoration. However, the promise of a queer mecca and the reality of a diverse metropolis ultimately proves that the isolation of immigration and any large queer center are their own complex systems to navigate with no more promise of community than anywhere else. As returnees each of these characters sees the fallacies of the culture in which they live as well as that of the dream of utopia abroad. Danny and Shirley still have this lesson left to learn.
Finally, the question about Antarctica also has do with what we are willing to reach for in our lives. Shirley knows she has something good, but also recognizes that if she does not explore everything that she is capable of being, she will never really know herself. Omer and Danny are so stuck in the smallness that they both almost miss out on love. And Boaz and Miki are so afraid of the transient nature of physical beauty that they push love away to hold on to its plasticity for one more moment. In the midst of their growing fixidity, it takes a woman willing to go public about her alien abduction to show them they too can dare to be honest about their truths and trust that others like them will find and love them.
It is hard to explain the beauty in which these stories unfold. Besides much of the symbolism and well-crafted “simple life” shots, there is a slowness in the pacing of this film that lends itself at once to the sadness of Danny and Michal and the “necessary” process of Ronen and Omer. Hochner’s direction not only keeps some of the characters from degenerating into stereotype, it also allows Antarctica to tackle complex storylines in a way that is deeply in touch with the human condition; yet the film is both light and funny at every turn. Things that should seem out of place, like a man asking if you can fit a body in the refrigerators for sale where Eiten works, or the send up to Divine in the figure of Omer and Shirley’s mother, or the potential alien landing at the end of the film, are all expertly woven into the story by Hochner so that you cannot imagine the film without them. In fact, the “alien landing” is itself the otherside of the metaphor for love in this film.
Hochener’s notes on making the movie highlight the dedication he had to seeing the story not only come to life but to reflect all of the complexities of the characters and events in a way that highlight the magic of the love story at its center. The return of some of his actors from previous work and the commitment of more famous actors also shows how easily others recognize his talent and the power of this script. Everyone involved brought passion and hope to the project that shows in each frame.
Ultimately, Antarctica asks its audience to love themselves and to trust that true love is out there waiting by showing a cast of brilliantly acted characters struggling with doing the same thing. While not everyone ends up sorted by the film’s end, this makes the love story at the center of Antarctica all the more powerful.
When Ronen grabs Omer in the street after Omer runs out of his own dysfunctional birthday party, it is a kind of magic I cannot put into words. In that moment, they save each other with the faith only true love brings us. Not surprisingly, neither of them can articulate what it means to have finally found the home for which they have been yearning. Instead they take turns thanking one another and asking sheepishly “for what?” But we all know why they are grateful. And anyone with a heart is equally so by film’s end.
So thank you Hochner, for giving us such a beautiful love story with characters who are strong enough to recognize and embrace love no matter how long the journey takes. This movie is truly special.
If Antarctica is playing a festival in your area, it is not to be missed.