The world of Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) is shattered by a single buzz at the door. Soldiers have come to tell Michael and his wife Dafna (Sarah Adler) that their teenage son has “fallen in action”.
Foxtrot, directed by Samuel Maoz (2009’s Lebanon), is a tightly structured, allegorical exploration of the Israeli male psyche in three acts, each offering a different perspective and tone. The film shows Michael’s reaction to the devastating report of Jonathan’s death, touching on the psychological effects of military service and the underlying trauma affecting Michael.
The film takes its name from the foxtrot dance, in which a sequence of steps leads the dancer to end at their starting spot. A foxtrot occurs in each of the three acts, in starkly different contexts. The sequences communicate the nostalgia, exuberance and despair the dancing characters struggle to express in words but are able to capture vibrantly in movement.
Act one homes in on the impact of the initial shock, drawing out an intense and nuanced performance from Ashkenazi. Part two takes us to an unspecified roadblock in the middle of barren land where Jonathan is one of four bored soldiers waiting and checking any passing cars (or camels). The final act returns to the kitchen in Michael and Dafna’s apartment, which now seems darker, more claustrophobic and disordered. Each of the three acts features a surprise or plot twist that cleverly jolts the viewer to recall the symbolic weight of the film and makes the audience feel as manipulated as the characters.
Maoz’s film both looks and feels extraordinary. Using a palette of cool colours and linear settings, Maoz suggests Michael’s attempt to function with clear boundaries, procedures and actions, which are inevitably destabilised by the rupturing events. Burying the past is a recurrent motif, reflected in destabilised physical spaces and landscapes as the story unfolds.
Throughout the film there is a pervasive feeling of the theatre of the absurd, offering humour and lightening the tone, notably when Michael is reminded to drink water on the hour every hour, and in the staging of the four soldiers who sit in a row trying to work out if their cabin is off-kilter by rolling a tin of meat from one end of the space to the other.
Maoz has teamed up again with his Lebanon director of photography, Giora Bejach, and again it proves to be a masterful pairing: the cinematography in Foxtrot is the film’s great strength. Close-ups and overhead and rotating shots bring a sense of claustrophobia and disorientation to interior scenes, and wide-shot scenes in the desert imply isolation and surrender to the barren landscape.
The focus on tropes of machismo and military heroism unfortunately means that the women in Foxtrot tend to be either shrunk to a stereotype (the insane and hysterical mother, a holocaust survivor and a menacing screen presence), or even excised from the screen altogether because of a supposed inability to cope emotionally – Dafna is sedated and put to bed by the soldiers before she manages to utter a word. She later re-emerges, but functions as wife-and-mother with little characterisation of her own. Jonathan is a talented artist, and we see his sketchbook drawings of hyper-sexualised images of women. The explicit drawings make uncomfortable viewing, although they are clearly fantasy figures intended by Maoz to enhance the visual texture of the film and emphasise its psychoanalytical and symbolic themes.
Foxtrot has been critically acclaimed in Israel and at international festivals, but Israeli culture minister Miri Regev has expressed her disapproval of the film, criticising its depiction of the Israeli army’s treatment of Palestinians. Foxtrot certainly isn’t easy to watch, but it does feel emotionally honest. It is a visually beautiful and uncomfortable film portraying great contrasts. In one early scene, Jonathan’s death notice can be glimpsed on a computer screen, alongside a bowl of oranges: “Oranges and dead soldiers”, Maoz says, “This frame is the story of my country in four words.”
Foxtrot is showing at London’s JW3 Cinema, from March 1-14. jw3.org.uk.