Veteran Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox’s outstanding new feature Sublet, co-written with Itay Segal, opens with the arrival of a jetlagged and disorientated fifty something gay man, Michael (The Inheritance’s John Benjamin Hickey) to bustling Tel Aviv. He’s a travel writer for The New York Times who has come to uncover the “real” city over a five-day stay, subletting an apartment from a handsome local filmmaking student Tomer (Niv Nissim). When Michael reaches Tomer’s apartment it is in disarray, he’s been up all night shooting a horror film and lost track of the days. The OCD Michael’s immediate reaction is to leave and get a hotel room, but Tomer needs the money so encourages the writer to stay. Unimpressed by Michael’s predictable choices of what to see in the city (and needing a place to crash while he sublets his apartment), Tomer agrees to take Michael away from the well-trodden tourist path in return for sleeping on his own sofa. They eat Israeli food together, making the most of a half price happy hour, go to an experimental dance show Tomer’s best friend Daria (Lihi Kornowski) is appearing in, hit a night club, lay on the beach, stroll around the city, and visit the young man’s mother Malka (a wonderfully warm Miki Kam) on her kibbutz. Vicariously then we also get an insider’s tour of the city as the men bond, with some intimate cinematography by Daniel Miller, and some gorgeous sun-dappled beach shots.
At night Michael takes his sleeping pills (though he needs a stronger dose), while Tomer smokes weed to help him sleep. The apartment walls are covered with posters of the movies that clearly inspire Tomer’s brand of “artistic horror” like Funny Games and Holy Motors, as well as one that might hint at his sexuality, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. He’d rather “make his audience vomit” than get a lukewarm reaction to his films Tomer tells Michael. Michael meanwhile, reveals that his newspaper column is entitled ‘The Intrepid Traveller’, an irony that’s emphasised as he gives Tomer a definition of the word that’s clearly everything Michael is not, but perhaps once was. During several video calls back to New York to speak to his husband David (Peter Spears) it’s apparent that there’s a strain between the men, and a recent trauma in their lives is hinted at. Whatever that might be, Michael has clearly repressed his feelings and appears a shell of man, unsure about how he wants the third act of his life to play out. This reserved character intriguingly contrasts and beautifully compliments Tomer’s charisma, unfettered confidence and apparent certainty about what he wants in his life.
With rich, nuanced work by both lead actors, subtle writing and an unhurried pace, as the two men get to know one another they each make an indelible impression on the other. Along the way, Michael also passes on his wisdom of how to pair socks so that they don’t lose their elasticity. It’s the kind of quirky, slightly goofy detail that gives the film its distinct flavour. There’s also an unspoken but palpable sexual tension between the men, but the eventual sexual healing is more about expressing and exploring their connection with one another than about lust. As you might expect given Fox’s previous work there’s also some political commentary as Michael attempts to process and articulate the city’s culture, and Daria talks of life with her on-again, off- again Arabic boyfriend Kobi (Tamir Ginsburg) and her desire to leave Tel Aviv for Berlin with him in search of more acceptance and creative opportunities.
While Michael is a gay identifying man who has been considering having children with his husband, Tomer is far more free-spirited with his sexuality, and although he uses the Israeli hookup app Atraf to meet men, he also mentions sleeping with women. In one brief but potent exchange there’s an understanding between the two men of their starkly different experiences. When Tomer learns about the subject matter of Michael’s acclaimed late 80s and early 90s New York set book, he asks the older man why everything has to keep going back to the HIV/AIDS crisis. For Michael, he tells him, it’s not going back to it, it’s part of him, his lived experience and a time of deeply personal as well as collective loss. (It’s different in tone, but reminiscent of the dynamics between Hickey’s character in The Inheritance and the younger men he interacts with). There’s a nice line where Tomer tells Michael he doesn’t see him as an old man, after making fun of his old-fashioned pyjamas, and gradually the way each man views the other begins to seep into their own perception of themselves.
Nissim brings an unforced charm and precise comic timing to Tomer, and his performance is all the more impressive given that he was cast while still at drama school and that Sublet marks his stunning screen debut. Hickey brings a captivating ground down vulnerability to Michael, his sorrow and concerns visible in every inch of his still but expressive face, that makes a huge impact as some that tensions begins to soften. What emerges is a touching, heartwarming, and ultimately hopeful film, with some poignant and even profound moments, all conveyed with an appealing lightness of touch. A meditation on ageing and the lessons we can learn from those we encounter, however different they might appear, if we only remain open enough.
By James Kleinmann
Sublet is part of the 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival March 17-28th 2021. For more details and to purchase passes and tickets head to the official festival website.