When presented with a direct, perfunctory question about whether or not his film’s subject–a homosexual affair between two orthodox Jewish men–is “taboo,” director Haim Tabakman gives an equally direct and frank answer:
Yes, of course [the film’s subject is taboo]. Some people from the religious world helped us, but no one wanted to be credited or thanked as advisers… There is really strong negative energy associated with this subject. If you want to be part of the orthodox
world, there is no way to settle this conflict. If you are inside this world, homosexuality is not accepted
As a testament to the intractable nature of the conflict between the forces of orthodoxy and those of self-acceptance, Eyes Wide Open is effective enough. That it lacks the power (for this viewer) of Avi Nesher’s The Secrets (Ha-Sodot) can perhaps be chalked up to the cipher-like nature of the characters breaking the taboo. Tabakman calls both characters “strong,” but concedes that Aaron is a “closed person” while saying that Ezri’s defining characteristic is his “anger.” It is quite possible to create a film about closed people that still engages the audience–Martin Provost’s Seraphine comes to mind–but to do so means, I think, giving us some sense of a character’s inner world that we can share. We are observers first and last in Eyes Wide Shut, and while the “first” part doesn’t bother me, the “last” does.
The film also invites comparison to Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s Trembling Before G-d, a documentary chronicling the attempts of Orthodox and Hasidic gays and lesbians to articulate the degree to which their religious community’s rejection of their sexual orientation effects them. That Dubowski’s film is now almost a decade old (it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2001) gives special poignancy to Tabakman’s articulation of what he hopes his film can achieve:
I really want to help break the silence, to break the taboo in ultraorthodox
society. The film can be part of the evolution of the orthodox world.
The way religious people live now is not the way Jerusalem has always been.
It is a reaction to the fear of losing part of their traditions. In the end, we are
dealing with human beings, not with sins. There is a way to convince people,
through movies, without using force to say: “Look, this exists.” And the first
time somebody says: “I know, it exists”, we win! Just to recognize it exists is
better than not existing at all.
The seeming paradox between “there is no way to settle this conflict” and “the film can be part of the evolution of the orthodox world” is one I had a hard time reconciling. Even as a straight viewer, I’m not sure if it is simply enough to say “look, this exists.” Perhaps, too, there is an air of “more put upon than any other” that pervades such comments and the film–one which I can’t help but wonder if gays in fundamentalist Christian or Muslim communities would find arrogant, and one which I can’t help but note excludes the experiences of lesbians altogether because women in general appear to be incidental not just to the plot of the film but to the society it depicts.
This is not to say that Eyes Wide Open is a bad film. One does not get invited to Cannes simply by smashing taboos. The film is directed with a measured, careful precision that nudges viewers towards what cannot be spoken. The script is very literate, with ample use of visual motifs–when we first see Aaron he is prying open a steel security shield around his butcher shop–and rhetorical, poetic ambiguity. “I didn’t bring it into our home,” Aaron says to his wife, an example of the sort of plain speech that must bear the weight of nuance to communicate what cannot be talked openly about.
Perhaps because of my own desires for a film that speaks to how we are the same as much as how we are different, it was Tabakman’s handling of the theme of hubris that resonated most deeply with me. In initially rejecting Ezri’s advances, Aaron constructs a coherent but ultimately futile theological meaning for his own inclinations. “Ordinary men cannot deal with this challenge,” he says, creating out of his internal conflict an affliction which, while denying his true self, does elevate his struggle to that of the heroic. The theme of power–the power over oneself and the power over others–ties gay and straight characters together. One by one characters proclaim “I decide” only to be forced, finally, to give way to a greater force that renders their claims of omnipotence and autonomy futile.