Life & Culture

Diary of a trailing spouse

When Israeli satirist Eli Ben-David followed his wife's job to Paris he gained a lot of material for a new TV series, he tells James Mottram


When filmmaker Eli Ben-David heard from his wife that she’d been offered a job as cultural attaché at the Israeli embassy in Paris, he was immediately concerned. “The almost instant fear I got was: ‘OK, what will it do to our marriage? How are we going to make it?’”

Partly, his concerns were selfish. As the co-creator of popular satirical comedy shows like Anachnu BaMapa, Ben-David was also enjoying native success that a huge move abroad might disrupt. “I was in the peak of my career back home in Israel.”  
Despite being unable to speak French, he took the plunge — moving with his wife and family to start a new life in Paris and becoming in expat terms a ‘trailing spouse’. Now, over five years on, he’s turned their experiences into his new show, The Attaché, a beguiling comedy-drama that examines the strains on a married couple who move to France from Israel. “It was a diary, like a private diary,” he says. “I just wanted to put on paper, as a therapy, my own little story about relocation and it has become what it’s become.”
In The Attaché, Ben-David plays Avshalom, an Israeli Jewish man of Moroccan descent. A successful musician, he moves to Paris for his spouse Annabelle’s new job — again, at the Israeli embassy in Paris. “I took a lot from my wife’s experiences. Of course, I exaggerated to make it more dramatic, but my wife… she took on responsibility for me, for the kids, for the house, for her new job. So it was an extremely tough situation for her. So there is a lot of similarity to what’s happening to Annabelle.” 
Did his wife mind being fodder for his latest TV show? “She’s used to it with me!” he laughs. After satirising the great and the good in Israel “now it was my turn to do it, to point the knife and the guns through me. I told her, ‘Hey, if I’m jumping into this, I’m going to bring everybody — us, you, me, your parents, my parents, whatever.’ Of course, it’s a series, a fiction. But still, I’m gonna base it on that.”
The ten-episode limited series, which debuts on Starzplay on Sunday, boasts plenty of Ben-David’s comic leanings — he has a Buster Keaton-like energy at times. But there’s drama stirred into the melting pot too. The first episode begins with Avshalom and Annabelle newly arrived in the City of Light, only to be caught up in the horrifying Parisian terror attacks that shook the city back in November 2015, when Islamic extremists killed 130 people with a series of orchestrated bombings. 
Ben-David had just moved to Paris one month earlier when the terrorists struck. “It was pretty intense,” he remarks, “and it gave me the inspiration to start dealing with these issues — Israeli-Arabic immigrants coming to Europe.” The writer-director, who was raised in Tel Aviv by parents who were born in Morocco, began to find Arab speakers in Paris talking to him on the streets after the attacks. “I reconnected to my Arab roots,” he admits. “For me, this connection was immediate. I get along with Arab people here [in Paris] more than I ever did back home in Israel.”
When it came to casting the role of Annabelle, Ben-David ended up selected French actress Héloïse Godet, who previously worked with the grandmaster of Gallic cinema, Jean-Luc Godard on his 2014 narrative essay, Goodbye to Language. “We were looking for an Israeli actress who could speak French,” he says. “We were auditioning these actresses in Israel and I immediately felt that their French was not correct. So I said to my casting director, ‘You know what? Maybe we will find some Jewish actresses that might speak [French].’”
Unable to speak Hebrew, Godet asked an Israeli makeup artist-friend to teach her how to say a couple of lines phonetically in the language, in order that she could send a taped greeting to Ben-David. It was good enough to fool him into calling her. “He talked to me in Hebrew,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know Hebrew, I’m just faking it!’” Against his better judgement, Ben-David gave her a shot at auditioning for Annabelle, sending her a full episode to learn. “She came back with phonetic Hebrew, not perfect, but I immediately realised that this woman… she’s totally obsessive!”
Godet took up with a Hebrew coach and spent the next three months immersing herself in the language. “I learned it like crazy,” she says. Ben-David sent her songs from Israeli musicians, which helped, and she also spent time visiting synagogues in Paris. “I chose one near me and said ‘Hey, can I come?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, just come whenever you want.’” Such was the intensity of her crash-course, she estimates if she spent a few more months, she could become fluent. “I know how to read and write. It’s just a matter of a few more words to learn.”
Wisely, Ben-David also brought her into the scripting stage, helping craft Annabelle’s dialogue “to understand the subtext of what she’s saying”. It turned out to be a useful collaboration, with Godet able to advise on French social and cultural subtleties. “Héloïse was my gate to Paris and to the French language,” says Ben-David, who admits he still struggles with speaking in French (and a lot of the humour in The Attaché comes from Avshalom’s own linguistic ineptness).
Despite all these efforts, there was still concern from the other creatives on the show when Godet stepped on set. “I remember the first shooting day — my Israeli cinematographer came to me after one scene and told me, ‘What have you done? She will not make it!’ Because it was the first scene. It was an exterior scene, it was freezing, it was in Ukraine [in Kiev, where much of the show was shot, doubling for Paris], and she had some difficulties. I told them, ‘You will see! She is more Jewish than us!’”
Listening to Ben-David, as he speaks from his Paris apartment over Zoom, the making of The Attaché was far from easy. After he wrote it, he felt the catharsis was enough. 
“I said, ‘You know guys, maybe we cancel this? I wrote it all. For me, it’s enough. I don’t have this need to shoot it, especially with me in the front of it.’” Persuaded otherwise, he not only took the lead but also directed all the episodes. “I’m happy in the end that I did that. It was very joyful. But it was hell! We were shooting in winter, in summer, in spring. I didn’t see my family for a long time!”
Though still based in France, 44-year-old Ben-David remains keen to continue working in Israel, which is such a hotbed of creativity right now. He’s tightly connected to others in the industry, including Daphna Levin, who created TV’s Euphoria that was recently remade by HBO, and Sigal Avin, whose show Losing Alice is currently doing so well on Apple TV+. 
“I think we are in this romantic period. The world discovered how we write [in Israel],” he says. “If you knock on a door in Israel and you say, ‘Tell me a story’… then you have a series, you have a feature.” He smiles. “We are very different in Israel.”

The Attaché is on Starzplay from March 14

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive