Israeli writer-director, Talya Lavie has always been a fan of romantic comedies but says she could not help but notice that they often ended with a wedding, or the promise of one. “I’d find myself wondering what was going to happen to the couple immediately after the typical happy ending.”
These thoughts are the basis for Lavie’s latest film, Honeymood, which screened at the London Film Festival last month and is the closing night gala film at this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival. “Honeymood starts where the classic romcom ends, and in many ways tries to be a romantic comedy turned upside down,” explains Lavie via email, writing in between shooting a drama series in Israel for HOT TV.
When Noam (Ran Danker) and Elinor (Avigail Harari) arrive at a deluxe hotel suite after their wedding, they are expecting a romantic memorable evening. What follows is indeed unforgettable, but for all the wrong reasons. Elinor’s discovery of a wedding gift from Noam’s ex-girlfriend provokes a fight which leads them to embark on an all-night urban odyssey through the streets of Jerusalem, involving bizarre encounters with past lovers, the groom’s parents and a troupe of dancing security guards. Over the course of one night, they are forced to confront repressed doubts and the lives they have chosen to leave behind.
Honeymood follows Lavie’s award-winning, debut comedy drama, Zero Motivation which won Best Narrative Feature and the Nora Ephron Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014, as well as six Israeli Ophir Awards, including Best Director and Best Screenplay for Lavie. Sharply observed, using a blend of wit, slapstick and satire, it focuses on the everyday life of three female Israeli soldiers serving in a remote desert army base, detailing their extreme boredom and struggles for promotion.
But having achieved such success with Zero Motivation, Lavie managed to circumvent the inevitable pressure to succeed with her next film. The project progressed slowly, she says, so much so that eventually her solution to “that second film challenge” was to skip it and move on to her third film, which was Honeymood.
“So, my second film is still there. It’s just waiting to be completed.”
Lavie began writing Honeymood at a time in her life when, “You wonder about commitment and what implications it may have on your freedom and your sanity,” she says. Although her writing is personal — she drew on some of her own experiences in the army for Zero Motivation —it is not autobiographical. “I collect ideas, emotions, thoughts and experiences from anywhere and they all go into my scripts.” In fact, the idea for a musical sequence scene outside the prime minister’s residence in Honeymood was inspired by an incident that happened to her. “When I was living in Jerusalem, I was once stopped by a security guard near the PM’s house. He asked me to move to the other side of the road as the prime minister and his wife were about to pass by,” Lavie explains. “I like it when something trivial [like that] can be turned into a glorious, magical moment.”
The female protagonists in her films are not “sweet, easily-loveable girls,” she admits. “What drives the plot is not that the characters encounter a problem, but rather they are the problem and what they have at their disposal is their charm. Nothing else.” Elinor may be exhaustingly dramatic — and the irony that she is a high school drama teacher is certainly not lost — but her lively and dynamic spirit overshadows that of her new husband, who just wants resolution to their misunderstandings and some sleep.
Lavie’s work is playful and humorous yet beneath the light-hearted banter and exaggerated drama, there are also dark aspects. In both of her feature films, she raises issues concerning women’s mental health, even suicide. Why is she drawn to dark comedy? “Comedy is at its best when it deals with serious themes, even tragic events,” believes Lavie. “And drama is at its best when it succeeds in being comical.”
As well as its central characters, Honeymood is about Jerusalem, the nocturnal activities of which are brought to life as the couple come into contact with a range of personalities, including taxi drivers, partying teenagers and hospital and restaurant workers. The city is also portrayed as a place of quiet, contemplative beauty. The film was shot in winter, at night, Lavie says, when I ask if the contrast was deliberate. “There’s something about it — especially at night — which calls for this kind of search for one’s identity. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Jerusalem is a very spiritual place, and also because everyday life goes on in it while in the background a lot of tension and conflict takes place.”
Film-making, however, was not Lavie’s first career choice. She was always interested in art and initially studied animation at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. But after the second year, she decided she wanted to study film instead and moved to the Sam Spiegel Film School, where she graduated with merit. Despite her success as a filmmaker, comics still remain her passion, she says. “During the first Covid lockdown earlier this year, when the film industry ground to practically a halt, I started a new comic strip, Bath Soap Comics, which I published daily. It was my way of going through these confusing times.”
Although there is still a long way to go before women achieve equal status in the film industry, says Lavie, she is acutely aware of the impact on people when they do see a woman director. “In one of my productions, an actress came up to me and told me it was the first time that she had worked with a female director, and how empowering this was for her,” she explains. “I’ve received similar feedback from other women and I really believe in [the phrase] ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’.”
So, after their long night of soul searching and wandering the streets, what hope does she have for Elinor and Noam’s future together? “Well, once the film ends, I no longer feel responsible for them,” Lavie says firmly. “I let them be whatever they choose to be.”
Honeymood will be screening online at the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 19, followed by an interview with Talya Lavie.