by Matt Levine
Minimalism has rarely been as moving as in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem—a story of marital distress, religious hypocrisy, and institutionalized sexism that never leaves a single courthouse. In modern-day Israel, women who desire a divorce from their husbands are at the mercy of a religiously orthodox justice system that will only grant the divorce—or “gett”—if the husband permits. It is in one such archaic court case that Viviane Amsalem finds herself, returning to the courtroom and trying to talk reason into the same trio of conservative judges over and over and over again, for a total of more than five years. Her impassive husband, dour and rigidly composed—referred to as intolerable by some witnesses and commendable by others—initially refuses to come to court at all, then simply ignores his wife’s demands, perhaps sadistically amused by his power to keep her trapped in a miserable marriage. If this sounds like an infuriating setup for a film, it is—and so it should be—but it’s also stirring, complex, and darkly humorous, as powerful in its outraged indictment of patriarchal tyranny as in its condemnation of a Kafkaesque modern society.
Directors: Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz
Producers: Sandrine Brauer, Denis Carot, Shlomi Elkabetz, Marie Masmonteil
Writers: Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz
Cinematographer: Jeanne Lapoirie
Editor: Joëlle Alexis
Cast: Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Gabi Amrani, Dalia Beger, Shmil Ben Ari, Abraham Celektar, Rami Danon, Sasson Gabai, Eli Gornstein, Evelin Hagoel, Menashe Noy
Premiere: May 16, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 13, 2015
US Distributor: Music Box Films
I was surprised to find, after watching Gett, that it is in fact the third in a series of movies centering on the character of Viviane Amsalem, following To Take a Wife (2004) and 7 Days (2008). All three films are written and directed by the brother-sister creative team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz; Ronit also stars as the pale, raven-haired Viviane, a clearly unhappy woman who has been taught to hold her tongue by her husband and her society, though she becomes increasingly outspoken as the film progresses. It’s surprising that Gett is the third in a trilogy not because it’s self-contained or anticlimactic, but because so much of its power relies on obliqueness—we get an anguished sense of how truly unhappy and imprisoned Viviane feels, but very little of her backstory (or her husband Elisha’s, played by Simon Abkarian) is revealed to us, forcing us to interpret the unspoken pain that we witness. While I’m sure seeing the previous two films lends Gett its own emotional depth, it is by no means necessary and might even be detrimental; this is a film that torments the audience by providing only hints and circumspection, forcing us to wonder what kind of misery goes on behind the closed doors of a seemingly normal family.
One thing is certain: Viviane is miserable, and has been for decades. A few lines of dialogue tell us that Viviane married Elisha, a devoutly religious Jewish man, when she was only 15 years old, though it spares any additional details. We see glimmers of her humor and liveliness—especially when Viviane’s sister and neighbor appear to testify on her behalf, or when she flashes bright-red toenail polish about halfway through the film, no longer attempting to appear prim and spinsterish (she realizes it does no good anyway)—but Viviane’s high spirits are clearly suffocated by her marriage. Her divorce trial begins twenty-five years after they're married, so it’s foolish to accuse her of not giving enough effort, as the judges repeatedly admonish her to do.
These three bearded judges, staring down at the participants from an elevated platform, observe Viviane and Elisha with about as much knowledge of their home life as the audience, though seemingly less emotional investment. At first they tell Viviane to give it a few more months, to try to appease her husband and make a happy home; they ask her why she’s “fanning the flames” and tell one fiery witness to behave timidly in the courtroom. Even as they gradually understand the incompatibility of Viviane and Elisha, they continue to back down whenever Elisha refuses to allow the gett. One could argue that the judges are simply professionals doing their job, but they assume a malevolent role in the film nonetheless; even if it is simply business as usual, that’s an even scarier comment on the callousness of social institutions. These grizzled moral watchdogs do provide a bit of humor—“thou shalt not gossip, or however the saying goes,” one of them witlessly says—but for the most part they’re a maddening personification of how easily justice can be bastardized by the men who practice it.
Of course there is a strong feminist undercurrent to Gett; the question of why Viviane is so unhappy in her marriage eventually becomes irrelevant, superseded by the more troublesome question of how a free woman, financially self-dependent (Viviane works as a hairdresser), could be denied a right and a freedom as commonplace as divorce. When religious and social conservatism masquerades as justice, the film suggests, how easy it is for those in power to wield their righteousness as a tool for oppression. Often times, this anger at a sexist status quo is voiced explicitly in the dialogue, as when Viviane claims that she’s been “kept like a dog in a yard” or finally challenges Elisha, “You want to keep me by force? Try.” More powerful, though, are the movie’s subtler suggestions of Viviane’s oppression; the opening shot, for example, lasts several minutes until we realize that Viviane is waiting just offscreen while a group of male bureaucrats discuss her character. It’s easy enough to convey the message that men and women should be granted equal judicial power in a modern nation, but it’s much trickier to convey that this freedom should be a simple facet of existing as a human being, as logical as breathing.
To say that the entire film is set in one courtroom might not actually convey how audacious Gett is; after all, loquacious courtroom dramas have long been a favorite genre for cinematic rhetoricians. The ardent feminism and microcosmic setting aren’t even among the film’s most striking aspects. For one thing, there’s the strictly plotted cinematography: utilizing a bold black-white-gray color scheme, the Elkabetzes (along with their cinematographer, Jeanne Lapoirie) shoot primarily from parallel and perpendicular angles, as though each character (and the camera) was placed along a grid with precise X and Y axes. This might sound overly calculated, but it’s a brilliant way to emphasize the cold, impersonal “logic” by which the judges rule—as if human nature and desire could be conveniently plotted along mathematical lines (or judicial codes). Manohla Dargis even argues that every single shot in Gett is from someone's point-of-view, either looking at someone or being looked at--emphasizing the human element of a quiet drama that the judges view as just another court case.
Equally bold is Gett’s treatment of time, which seems both compressed and elongated in the film. Titles frequently appear onscreen to let us know how much time has passed: “Six Months Later,” “Two Months Later,” ad nauseam, each title appearing over an image that’s striking in its familiarity. By the end of the film, when a title appears reading “Five Years Since the Trial Began,” you realize that a fraction of a lifetime has passed before your eyes in less than two hours—and how unbearable that must have been for the woman experiencing it. (This is the power of the film’s unique vagueness: after a particularly grueling scene, when we read a title informing us that six months have gone by, you wonder what you haven’t seen—the unknown, painful stories played out in similar courtrooms throughout the world.) This five-year trial is compressed in a way that heightens its endlessness, bending time in a way that’s truly hypnotic. Surprisingly, the movie shares something in common with Chantal Akerman’s feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), in which we witness a widowed housewife for three-plus hours, her misery conveyed cryptically yet intensely—the aching crawl of time in a life spent unhappily. For Viviane Amsalem, too—who has spent two-thirds of her life with a man she despises in a marriage she likely didn’t want—time must seem infinite even as it all blurs together, though even the audience can’t know the full extent of her anguish.
Maybe I’m making Gett sound too much like a dismal message-movie. The movie might be infuriating by design, but it’s also funny and surprising—at one point, Viviane breaks out laughing during her neighbor’s testimony, the cathartic peal of laughter contagious for the audience. Viviane is a remarkable character, spontaneous and relatable even as her plight is unthinkable; when she lets down her cascading black hair in the middle of the courtroom without thinking, it’s both a joyous and a shattering portrayal of someone behaving naturally and castigated for doing so. Even the last shot of the film, ambiguous though it is, suggests hope as it follows Viviane’s feet out the courtroom; her walk is unique and proud, and more gracious viewers might assume that her strength and zeal for life will not accept misery as her fate.
Though Gett is very powerfully the story of a woman denied her freedom by a sexist court system, it’s by extension the story of a human being who is tormented by a political structure that’s supposed to be democratic. Like Josef K. in The Trial, she is endlessly persecuted for a crime she didn’t commit by a higher authority that’s both invincible and implacable. At one point in Gett, Viviane's lawyer is told by the judges that “every man’s life is on trial,” and Elisha seems to be given greater leeway because he observes the Sabbath and keeps an Orthodox Jewish household, which the judges deem pious and upstanding. The justice system, in this case, acts as a tool for demanding religious and social conservatism, a 21st-century puritanical court. It’s a terrifying depiction of a judiciary that wields its power to oppress rather than defend. While Gett would have been powerful as a straightforward message movie, its hypnotically spare style and denunciation of insidious social structures turn it into something more ambitious and more affecting. The litany of social mechanisms by which the modern world functions—the media, governments, international commerce, communication, the prison system, the courts, etc.—try to make us believe that humans are a civilized species, but it’s sometimes disturbingly easy to see a bitter truth beneath the cracks.