Leave the Beaten Trail in Tel Aviv

Published in: July-August 2020 issue.



Directed by Eytan Fox
LightStream Israel, Mezzeh
Productions, and United King Films



SUBLET BELONGS to a small genre of movies that chart a love affair whose arc rises and falls within a narrow window of time from first meeting to final farewell. It’s all telescoped into a period of days rather than months or years—or even into a single day, as in the 1995 film Before Sunrise and its two sequels. all directed by Richard Linklater. In the case of Sublet, the action takes place over a period of five days which are conveniently numbered, dividing the film into five acts.

            Day One finds a somber, middle-aged American man arriving in Tel Aviv and discovering that his Airbnb is still occupied by its primary tenant, a young indie filmmaker who was up all night filming and lost track of the days. It has the makings of a contentious situation, but the American visitor, Michael—a New York Times travel writer who’s in Tel Aviv on assignment—is too polite to make a fuss and offers to find a hotel. Or perhaps he’s already captivated by his Israeli host, Tomer, who’s nothing if not easy on the eyes, not to mention charming and twenty-something hip. In addition to making films, Tomer sublets his flat to earn money while couch-surfing with friends. So he starts packing up to vacate the premises, but Michael can’t resist asking him a few questions about where to find “the real Tel Aviv,” and before you know it he’s agreeing to show Michael around the city even as the latter is offering to let him sleep on the couch.

            Their association thus begins as a business arrangement and retains a transactional element throughout, which serves as a kind of official cover for the feelings and stirrings that are brewing under the surface. At any rate, it provides a reason for them to spend nearly every waking hour together over the next few days, or so it seems, as we start each day with breakfast on the lanai or at a café and end it at a nighttime venue where alcohol is typically consumed. Much of the time in between is spent with the two men as they get to know each other, but we also meet Tomer’s friend Daria (who stars in his movies) and her boyfriend, whose tempestuous relationship could be on the rocks. And we meet his highly cultured mother, who still lives on the kibbutz where Tomer grew up. We encounter Michael’s husband David via Skype and learn that the couple is having problems related to a failed surrogacy attempt, which helps to explain Michael’s generally melancholy demeanor.

Niv Nissim as Tomer and John Benjamin Hickey as Michael in Sublet.

     Closing the gap between two seemingly incompatible individuals is the stuff of romantic comedy, of course. The major “problem” in this pairing is the men’s age difference (thirty years?), which some people might overlook, but Tomer has made it clear that he’s attracted to hot young guys, and he’s in it for the sex. What’s more, he has a hard time understanding the impulse to pair off and settle down, which could make sense for straight couples, but why give up sexual adventurism if you’re gay? It’s a theme that has found its way into a number of recent movies and plays, most recently the Broadway epic The Inheritance: the generation gap between gay men who lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s and those in the “post-AIDS generation” who haven’t experienced the downside of sexual freedom.

            Given this disparity in both age and outlook, the challenge for director Eytan Fox is to conjure the attractive force that can bring these guys together, and in just a few days. Okay, Michael’s attraction to Tomer isn’t hard to explain, at least on a physical level, though he clearly has qualms about following that route. (At one point Tomer calls up a hottie on Grindr and invites Michael to join them in a three-way, but the latter blushes and slinks away.) It is Tomer’s change of heart that needs to be explained, for he really falls for Michael and loses it when they have to bid farewell. What pierced the veil of Tomer’s cynical demeanor is not entirely clear, but something in Michael’s recent past—no doubt the source of his melancholy—contains a human experience that seems to jibe with Tomer’s own life history in an unexpected way, like the proverbial key to his heart.

            Sublet doesn’t break any new ground as cinema, but it succeeds on its own terms. The two actors (John Benjamin Hickey and Niv Nissim) are completely natural in their roles, even if their chemistry as lovers—they do eventually do the deed (on the last night, of course)—isn’t totally obvious. Director Eytan Fox also made a 2004 film titled Yossi & Jagger (reviewed here in May-June 2004), which focused on a love affair between two male soldiers conducted inside the cramped confines of an Israeli bunker over the course of a single day and night. In both films the dialog is surprisingly spare, and none of the four men spends an inordinate amount of time analyzing his feelings or justifying his life choices. Nor are these cases of “love at first sight,” as each relationship takes at least a few hours to develop. What Fox wants to explore is the possibility that two people can come together and light upon some essential humanity in the other that’s beyond words or even sexual intimacy. Some might call it love.