Let me tell you about Rachel. She’s a smart, independent Jewish woman who has chosen to be a stay-at-home mother. Rachel has a handsome husband, lots of friends and volunteers at the Jewish community centre in fashionably bohemian Silver Lake, East LA. Oh, and on a whim, she invites a homeless lap-dancer to move into the spare room and babysit her child.
As curve balls go in cinema — particularly of the Jewish kind — this is an impressive bit of pitching from left field. But it’s the unpredictable behaviour of protagonist Rachel in Afternoon Delight that makes this film so interesting and gives Chicago-born writer/director Jill Soloway the voice she has craved in independent cinema.
Not that Soloway was a silent player in the entertainment industry. For two decades she has been making her way up the ladder in television, providing content for other people’s shows such as Dirty Sexy Money, Grey’s Anatomy and, most consistently, on Six Feet Under, on which she was writer and co-executive producer. She was even dubbed the “godmother of the writer’s room” at HBO, where she guided less experienced script contributors towards perfection. But for all that she was dissatisfied.
“I kept feeling I had hit the glass ceiling,” she says. “You got through all these levels as co-producer then supervising producer, but there are only so many people who make it to executive producer. That’s the big job — the creator — and I was always to the left or right of the person in charge. To become the voice of a show, I realised that I had to step out of television and make a film so that people would be able to see what my voice was, how I saw the world and what was funny to me.”
With Afternoon Delight as the proof of her pudding, Jill has already scooped the directing prize at Sundance this year and is now being invited to share her “semi autobiographical” movie at festivals around the globe, including a London screening as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 12. She is so popular that our chat was constantly interrupted by calls about her travel arrangements to Paris, Berlin, even Wroclaw.
“Yes I’m going there too,” she says fielding another call, but the interest is understandable as the film is alarmingly accurate in its depiction of grown women struggling to get it right and be satisfied in, or in spite of, their privileged lifestyles. As for its Jewish themes, well they are subtle, and with the absence of klezmer music to flag up the religious content, Afternoon Delight could just be a “woman invites lap-dancer who is really a prostitute to live with her and seduce her friends’ husbands” movie.
“You could watch it and not even think about the Jewishness of the film,” observes Josh Radnor, who plays Rachel’s husband Jeff. “But if you are Jewish, or if you understand what is rippling under the surface of that, I think it makes it a richer experience.”
Ambivalence to Jewish rituals is an issue addressed in the film and this ties in closely with Soloway’s own interests away from the screen. For three years ago she co-founded East Side Jews to reach out to twenty- and thirtysomethings who are interested in Jewish traditions, “but don’t want that feeling of ‘I don’t know the words and what does this add up to?’”
The aim was “to create events that have a very low barrier for entry and provide a way of celebrating Shabbat or the High Holy Days in a very casual manner”. The meetings and events take place in Silver Lake, which is home for Soloway, as well as her film characters. But like-minded Jews come from the surrounding neighbourhoods to enjoy everything from Havdalah celebrations with a Jewish porn star as the guest speaker to a singles night with the director dressed up as a matchmaker.
Soloway’s youngest son, five-year-old Felix, goes to school at the Silver Lake JCC and the centre features in Afternoon Delight, although this may have been as much for budgetary reasons as for convenience. But the director says she is forever on site with a clipboard getting people to sign up for things. “Our next event is a Chanucah getaway, only it’s happening at Christmas,” she adds laughing. Soloway says that although there is a bit of her in every female character in her film, “I’m most like Rachel. But I have more sex with my husband than she does.”
For audience members of a modest disposition, the sex scenes — notably between Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Jeff — will be eye-opening as sex between consenting Jewish couples is not something one sees on screen very often.
“The answer is never,” Soloway corrects. “You’ve seen Woody Allen having sex but never with Jewish women — and in some ways this film is a reaction to growing up with Woody Allen films which often portray the Jewish woman as a harridan pushing her typically Jewish husband into the arms of a [non-Jew]. In a way, making this film was about me wanting to take up residency in the voice of an authentic, likeable Jewish woman — albeit one who makes mistakes.”
And the mistakes of Rachel might just be the best thing to have happened to Jill Soloway.