Sublet is yet another delicate, moving slice of cinema from one of the world’s preeminent queer chroniclers.
Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox has made a career out of crafting deceptively slight queer character studies that highlight the complex but ultimately loving relationship he shares with the city he calls home, Tel Aviv. That trend continues with Sublet, in which an American traveler and writer forms an unlikely bond with an aspiring 20-something filmmaker whom he is renting a room from for a brief five-day stay. Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) is precise and rigid, and his journey to Israel is both work-mandated and a welcome reprieve from a marriage currently in the midst of an unspecified crisis. Tomer (Niv Nissim) lives each day in a seemingly carefree haze of film school, weed-smoking, and random hook-ups. Both men are gay, a fact which seems to bind the two seemingly disparate individuals in ways that Fox capitalizes on: One immediately questions if Michael’s motives are completely innocent, while Tomer seems to take great joy in teasing Michael, to the point that it almost seems as if the young man is playing a borderline cruel game. The brilliance here, though, is that Fox takes the classic will-they-or-won’t-they gambit and, instead of manipulating it for maximum sexual tension, employs it as a means of exploring his characters — their possible motivations and fragile emotional states. As is made clear from the outset, neither individual is exactly innocent, and as the film progresses, the question turns from “When?” to “Why?” What has led these two men to this state, and what do they hope to gain from this brief encounter?
Sublet also serves as a gorgeous travelogue of Tel Aviv, as Tomer exposes Michael a side of the city rarely seen by tourists, highlighting the chaos and the stillness that co-exist within its borders. The seeming contradiction of that description aptly applies to both Sublet and Fox’s entire filmography, as he takes material that seems sensationalistic in nature and finds the fragile human heart beating within it. Sublet is the type of film that slowly passes over you, as gentle as a summer breeze, and it’s only when the final act is reached that you understand the weight it actually holds, setting viewers up for reveals that should by all rights come as melodramatic but which instead feel organic. When the tears come — and trust me, they will — they feel earned, never cheap. Hickey, in a rare leading role, underplays the material to the point that his performance can feel borderline comatose, a choice that proves to make perfect sense in hindsight and actually gives the film a considerable emotional pull. He shares believably complex chemistry with the — it has to be said — ridiculously good-looking Nissim, an actor making his feature-film debut and who matches Hickey beat-for-beat. If Sublet manages to find a large enough audience, the impressive Nissim is going to have a huge career in front of him. One wishes the same for Fox, a filmmaker who has steadily turned out fantastic work for nearly 20 years now, but who’s never seemed to garner the acclaim or crossover appeal he so richly deserves. The international indie queer scene wouldn’t be the same without his pioneering efforts, and Sublet is further proof of his gentle genius.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | June 2021.