Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You contains the germ of an actual story, but immediately there’s reason to be suspicious. The tale was extrapolated from the British writer-director’s own teenage years, so it traverses not one but two realms that are shrouded in self-deception: adolescence and autobiography.
As in Goldbacher’s first feature, The Governess, the movie’s protagonist is a smart, charming, sheltered Jewish girl. Me Without You’s heroine comes out of her shell more slowly than The Governess’s, however. Holly has been indoctrinated in her mousiness by her mother, who tells her she’s clever but not pretty. She’s also intimidated by her next-door neighbor and best friend, Marina (Anna Friel), whose flamboyance is encouraged by her glamorous mum (Trudie Styler). As is so often the case in such movies, everyone seems to understand that Holly is plain except the casting director; the part went to Dawson’s Creek heartthrob Michelle Williams, whose English accent is more credible than her homeliness.
Holly and Marina come of age in late-’70s suburban London, listening to the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” reading The Joy of Sex, and getting punked up for a party when they hear that the Clash will be there. Wreckless Eric’s globe-spanning ode to true love, “Whole Wide World,” plays when the film reveals the one secret Holly won’t tell her best pal: that she’s madly smitten with Marina’s older brother Nat (Oliver Milburn). At the party, there’s no Clash, but there are initiations into sex and smack. Only Marina tries the latter, which makes the images go predictably blurry to the strains of the Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet.”
Cut to the opening riff of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Cutter” and it’s 1982 in Brighton, where Holly and Marina have both gone for college. Holly is political and intellectual—cue Scritti Politti’s “The Sweetest Girl”—and Marina is a bleached-blond goth party girl. The two remain close, though, even after Marina seduces Daniel (Kyle MacLachlan), the visiting American professor who is Holly’s latest love interest. As this triangle starts to collapse, Nat arrives from Europe, rebounding from a breakup with Isabel (Marianne Denicourt), the French actress he will eventually marry.
Back in London and beginning a career as a journalist, Holly meets an older, established Jewish doctor, who’s just the sort of guy her mother would expect her to marry. Of course, Marina steals him. Yet the women still continue their friendship, with Marina preparing to wed and announcing that her conversion to Judaism gives her “a sense of identity.” (“Whose identity?” asks Holly.) Despite Marina’s repeated treachery, it’s clear that she desperately needs Holly—even before she finally says so. And there’s never any doubt that Holly will finally achieve true love, without having to travel the whole wide world just to find it.
The drift toward a happy ending trivializes the narrative, which is what happened in Goldbacher’s previous film. The director (who co-wrote this script with Laurence Coriat) tells stories of deception and betrayal in which misdeeds have no serious implications—and thus no impact. The period is evoked more convincingly this time than in The Governess, in which a Victorian-era Sephardic Jew successfully poses as a Protestant after a quick browse through Calvinism for Dummies, but at least the earlier movie acknowledged that adolescent fires do burn out. In Me Without You, Goldbacher takes the case of an intense real-life friendship that she admits unraveled “before we were 16” and tries to prolong it another 20 years. But why wouldn’t Holly abandon her destructive adolescent companion as quickly as her creator did? You’d expect such a clever girl to transfer to a Marina-free university by the time of Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon.”
A glancing but urgent documentary, James Longley’s Gaza Strip opens in medias res and stays there. Palestinian kids in the 28-by-4-mile Israeli-occupied zone describe watching soldiers shoot their friends; cars, trucks, and horse-drawn carts create a surreal rush hour on the beach after occupation authorities close the roads; and 13-year-old newspaper hawker Mohammed Hejazi, reading of Ariel Sharon’s 2001 election, includes Arafat with Israeli leaders when he says, “Fuck them all.”
Longley, an American who spent three months shooting video footage in the Gaza Strip in the spring of 2001, obeys the austere rules of cinema verite: no narration, no history, no talking-head “experts,” save for the woman from the International Red Cross who appears as a quick afterthought while the credits roll. (She announces that Israeli settlements in Gaza violate international law, but the documentary never provides the numbers: 6,000 Jewish settlers have taken 30 percent of Gaza, squeezing 1.2 million Palestinians into the rest of the territory.) Although he enlisted a second camera operator, Longley did almost everything himself, including composing the ambient-drone score.
The result is powerful but frustratingly murky, and not just because no Israeli viewpoints are represented in the film. When Israeli troops discharge what seems to be a form of nonlethal nerve gas into Palestinian territory, Longley presents convulsing victims and a French physician who describes the symptoms, but no hard evidence of what the gas is. And when a boy’s stomach is blown open by a disguised mine, there’s no proof that the mine was designed to kill innocent bystanders—or that it wasn’t.
The Palestinians Longley interviewed express outrage and resistance, but also a sort of resignation. They imagine martyrdom or everyday death not as glorious, but simply as a potential improvement in their standard of living. Mohammed, who has seen many of his friends killed by Israeli troops while throwing rocks or scavenging material to sell for food, is not sure he’ll attain paradise when he dies. He imagines that his god, far from welcoming him as a hero of the faith, will challenge him about his thefts and rock-throwing. Musing on what the final judgment will be, Mohammed decides that eternal residence in purgatory might be a pretty good deal.
That’s just one of the ready-made metaphors for life in occupied Palestinian territory that Longley encountered. Interviewees also note that the symbolically tone-deaf Israelis regularly bulldoze groves of olive trees—”the trees of peace”—in their zeal to punish (and starve?) Palestinians. Of course, in a parallel universe not mentioned in this documentary, Palestinian bombers target Israeli noncombatants, with effects that equal the horrors Gaza Strip shows us. One man and a video camera can’t be expected to encompass every aspect of this long-standing conflict, but in forgoing any context, Longley renders his documentary as fragmentary as it is engrossing. CP