Thursday 25 March 2021

Sublet (Eytan Fox, 2020)

Ten years ago, Matthew Haigh's Weekend was released to great acclaim; while I found the film to be perfectly watchable, I was (and remain) puzzled by the ecstatic response that greeted what, to my eyes, was a fairly minor diversion involving a brief encounter between two men.  Eytan Fox's Sublet, which screens as part of BFI Flare until Sunday, may well be doomed to unfavourable comparisons to Weekend, but for my money Fox's film is the far stronger work.  Much of Sublet's appeal lies in the presence of John Benjamin Hickey, who delivers a terrifically moving turn as a fiftysomething travel writer on assignment in Israel.  Hickey's Michael is an affable, gentle type, yet there's a melancholy aspect to him that can't be ignored.  In what is effectively a two-hander, Hickey is joined by newcomer Niv Nissim, a young Israeli actor who makes an impressive screen debut as he rises to meet the high bar set by his experienced co-star.

When Michael arrives in Tel Aviv to write an article on the city's lesser-known attractions, he finds that his rental accommodation hasn't been vacated; instead, young film student Tomer (Nissim), who is the one subletting the flat to Michael, thinks the rental period isn't due to start until the following day.  Once the mix-up has been sorted, Tomer hastily gathers up some of his things and leaves Michael in the cluttered, messy apartment.  Michael settles in and checks in with his husband David (Nomadland producer Peter Spears) who, it transpires, has been clandestinely working on finding a surrogate mother for the couple; Michael is irked to discover this, and it seems that the ambition of becoming a parent is one he's lost his enthusiasm for.  It isn't long before Tomer returns to the flat to collect some more of his belongings, and it turns out that the student doesn't have too many options for other places to stay while he rents out his apartment for some much-needed cash; Michael is basically fine with the idea of his landlord sleeping on the couch, so Tomer winds up in the position of receiving a rental income for an apartment he's still staying in.  Michael would like something in return, however, and proposes that Tomer be his guide around the "real" Tel Aviv as he researches his article.  As Tomer isn't short on time, he happily agrees.

As in all good two-handers, it is the gap between the pair that provides the main source of interest, but as Michael and Tomer spend more time together, we see how their many differences (for example, attitudes to AIDS) give way to some common ground; as well as being gay men, the two share a faith (many years previously, Michael actually visited Tel Aviv for his bar mitzvah).  When prompted for some insight into the Israeli mentality, Tomer memorably opines, "We're in the Middle East, but want to be treated like we’re in the West", and with this statement it becomes fairly clear that, in cultural terms, Michael can probably learn more from Tomer than vice versa.  Yet the older man's views on relationships and family life are there for Tomer to absorb; to the script's great credit, Michael doesn't dive headlong into the habits of the rather hedonistic Tomer, but instead stands his ground when his guide tries to introduce him to the joys of, say, MDMA or the Israeli version of Grindr.  Neither man concedes too much to the other, and this makes their lively, thoughtful (and largely non-confrontational) conversations all the more remarkable.

Sublet is both well-written and well-acted, and it has much in common with another Flare 2021 title, Daniel Sánchez López's Boy Meets Boy (pictured above), a slightly lesser work which also sees a local guiding a tourist around a major city while the clock ticks down; furthermore, both of these men, just like Sublet's Michael and Tomer, have radically different views regarding relationships.  In López's film, the city in question is Berlin, somewhere that two of Sublet's satellite characters are planning on moving to, much to Michael's bewilderment; the writer questions why they would want to live in a country that symbolises so much in the way of Jewish tragedy, and the response highlights a generational divide, one which thankfully doesn't get in the way of Tomer and Michael's ongoing dialogue.  It's only in the final reel that Sublet takes an unfortunate misstep into predictability, but for the bulk of its running time this is a thoughtful, moving piece of cinema, one that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Darren Arnold

Images: Daniel Miller / BFI