December 22, 2004

Or (My Treasure)

Directed by Karen Yedaya

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Winner of Camera d’Or at Cannes, Keren Yedaya’s Or (My Treasure) takes an unwavering look at an Israeli teenager’s descent into prostitution. Yedaya’s ambitious debut endeavours to examine the complex psychosis that propels her into such an undignified existence, but the film sometimes reverts to a typically judgmental blame game like Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever (2002).

Set in an indistinct and insufferably claustrophobic Tel Aviv, the film’s fixed frames and abrupt cuts constantly threaten to push its characters outside the compositions or dismember them into mere body parts. Or (Dana Ivgi, daughter of actor Moshe) first emerges from a bustling street dragging a bulky bag of recyclables she has scavenged for their deposits. We soon learn that she also juggles school, a dishwashing job, and pseudo-parental responsibilities in her dysfunctional relationship with her prostitute mother Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz of Late Marriage [2001]).

The film contrasts Or’s beyond-her-years wisdom with Ruthie’s immaturity in their every interaction. But despite her worldliness, Or desperately needs a role model in her life. She stubbornly attempts to reform Ruthie into a proper mother, ultimately to her own detriment, as Ruthie proves to be a lost cause. The only time Ruthie remotely displays traces of maternal instincts is when a neighbour clues her in to Or’s promiscuous tendencies, but she is still too hopelessly incompetent to properly intervene.

Ruthie seems to resent being cast in a domestic role and meeting the societal expectations placed on respectable women and mothers, yet she goes out of her way to seek subjugation by men regardless of how demeaning the circumstance. Taking a lead from her mother, Or also frequently picks up random boys to engage in some heavy petting in the dark shadows beneath the staircase of the building where she lives. Her solicitation of fleeting affection ultimately impedes her blossoming romance with Ido (Meshar Cohen), and an unexpected confrontation with his mother inflicts irreparable damage on Or’s psyche. Finally deeming herself unworthy of Ido’s love, Or plunges into prostitution.

Yedaya depicts women’s sexuality as a bargaining tool, both for material means and for validation of their self-worth. When pressed for rent, Ruthie and Or separately offer their services to the landlord. The two women both aspire to be in normal relationships, but misguidedly believe that sex is the best thing they have to offer. Ruthie harbours unrealistic hope for her love interest Avi’s (Zahi Hanan) affections in spite of his recurrent insensitivity, constantly obsessing over his seemingly perpetual absence. When Avi actually stops by for an impromptu visit, Ruthie drops everything and skips her housekeeping work to be with him. Ironically, she briefly seeks his approval by bragging about that very same job and renouncing her streetwalking past. Then moments later, she lifts his shirt up and regresses to what she knows best.

Both Or and Ruthie yearn for powerful figures to steer them in the right direction. Instead of giving them a chance, most people end up taking advantage of them. Though ultimately self-defeating, prostitution provides some ephemeral intimacy that provisionally fills their emotional voids. After failing to dissuade Ruthie from prostitution, the heartbroken Or immediately seeks solace by phoning her escort agency and requesting work that evening. Her final submission to world-weary cynicism is the film’s triumph in rendering the intricate link between low self-esteem and self-destructive behaviour.

While Yedaya has created multi-layered profiles with fascinating psychology, her heroines are completely at the mercy of men who are either callous or weak. The first-time director seems to struggle to find the delicate balance between assigning her protagonists responsibility for their own predicaments and placing blame on their dire circumstances. Catherine Breillat has also attempted these sorts of psychoanalytical laments on female sexuality. But as illustrated by films such as Romance (1999), Fat Girl (2001) and Anatomy of Hell, Breillat’s heroines angrily rebel against their predicaments rather than helplessly submitting to them.

In Yedeya’s otherwise deeply thoughtful effort, a neglectful upbringing and the general heartless tendencies of the male gender intermittently come off as simplistic scapegoats. The director’s explanations score some valid points, but she ultimately cuts the mother too much slack on account of her streak of bad luck with men. The emotional and physical cruelty of men elicits understandable sympathy for Ruthie, seemingly excusing her from accountability for her generally poor judgment calls. In due course, this view contradicts and undermines the main narrative, in which Ruthie is actually an antagonist herself and the foremost cause of Or’s plight.

From Cinema Scope No. 21, Winter 2005. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.