Had Israeli director Eytan Fox's new film, about a passionate affair between two men on opposite sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict, been released in the early 1970s (when I was the same age as its twenty-something hipsters and living in Tel Aviv), the movie would have attracted a smattering of furtive admirers in the peace movement and the tightly closeted gay community. Almost everyone else in what was then a homophobic society, riddled with anti-Arab sentiment after the Six Day War (and on the cusp of the Yom Kippur War), would have thrown rotten tomatoes.
Today, The Bubble — which has fairly explicit scenes of gay sex between a young Jew and a Palestinian from the occupied territories — is a local hit that's also proudly flagged on the New York Israeli Consulate General website. Whether this means that Israel has grown more tolerant, or just more heterogeneous and steeped in Western pop culture, is an open question. But in Fox, an openly gay American-born Jew who moved to Israel as a child, Israeli youth has found an enthusiastic killer of sacred cows whose movies happen to play like strung-together episodes of Friends. His is the voice of the new Israel: hedonistic, narcissistic, yet also more innovative and accepting than the generation of ideologues who founded the state.
Already known in this country for his terrific 2004 thriller Walk on Water and for the gay army love story Yossi & Jagger, Fox, with his longtime partner and co-writer Gal Uchovsky, makes slickly commercial Westernized dramedies whose sexual politics come inflected with a woozy pacifism that has brought him international attention and a reach well beyond gay movie-goers. Like his urban-chic protagonists — three Tel Aviv roommates trying to shut out war by living in an escapist "bubble" of personal fulfillment — Fox has eagerly absorbed the tropes of American situation comedy and reality television. But again like his characters, Fox knows that eventually the cocoon must tear: There's no escaping war or politics for long in Israel, where a suicide bomber can turn the trendiest watering hole into a hellhole in seconds.
Fox is a smooth filmmaker, but no one would call him a subtle one. The three roomies — Noam (Ohad Knoller), a sensitive music-store clerk who unwillingly mans a checkpoint in the West Bank on weekends; Yali (Alon Friedmann), a soft-hearted queen who runs an upscale cafe with two beautiful lesbians; and Lulu (Daniela Wircer), a mouthy nymph with the obligatory faulty taste in men — wouldn't look out of place on a poster for The Hills. Barely has Noam laid eyes on Ashraf — a handsome innocent from the occupied town of Nablus, who slips in and out of Tel Aviv without papers — than the two of them are going at it in Noam's bed. Before you can say jeux interdits, Noam's roommates bestow a Hebrew name on Ashraf (played by Yousef Sweid, a Christian Israeli Arab), spiff up his wardrobe, haul him off to a performance of Bent and invite him to a rave for peace on the beach.
The scenario isn't entirely far-fetched (Sweid himself lives with an up-and-coming female Israeli director), and in the current desolate climate, just about any warm contact between Jews and Arabs is cause for breaking out the bubbly. But if The Bubble's bouncy joie de vivre — it's a musical without the numbers — is infectious, the trio's adoption of Ashraf is laced with a whiff of condescension that the director himself doesn't seem to see. And the subplot that unfolds on the other side of the checkpoint, where Ashraf's sister Rana (Ruba Blal) is about to marry a rabid Islamic fundamentalist with the pointed name of Jihad, seems all too tidy. Still, Fox is as fearless in tackling Arab homophobia and hatred of Jews as he is frank about the Israeli army's brutality.
About forbidden love he may be a hopeless romantic, but Fox also has the hopeless romantic's propensity for dystopia when idealism fails. Given the upbeat, tender rhythms of the movie's love story, the climax — a cry of bottomless despair — comes as a profound shock. It's meant to, and though the ending is touched by the goofy absurdities of melodrama, Fox's mix-and-match sampling of apparently incompatible genres nails the nervous blend of vitality and desperation that is Israel today.