‘The Slut’ – Shame, moshav-style

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The Slut

Written and directed by Hagar Ben Asher

Israel, 2011

Actress Hagar Ben Asher’s writing and directing debut’s literal Hebrew meaning is The Giver and the English version The Slut with which it makes its way around the world is more than a little problematic. Premiered at Cannes in 2011, this modest first film set in an unnamed palm-tree swaying, cicada-teeming moshav (rural or semi-rural cooperative agricultural settlement in Israel) half a globe away from the sin-filled dank streets of New York City, has a core subject matter nevertheless strongly reminiscent of the much higher-profile Shame in its dealing with the self- and other-destructive nature of sex addiction.

The protagonist Tamar, incarnated by the writer and director herself, is a subdued but wayward poultry farm owner living with her two young daughters in a slow-paced, picturesque moshav, whose scenery is characterised by some lush, at times almost breath-taking cinematography and naturalistic, unobtrusive set design. Tamar has a habit of freely and generously donating sexual favours to the male villagers, here for a fixed bike, there for a late ride home, always out of the goodness of her charitable nature it seems. Paradoxically, each villager patiently awaits his turn and a utopian non-competition, non-jealousy pact seems to pervade. Tamar herself never seems to physically or emotionally benefit from these encounters, referring to the original title’s female giver, but rather appears to almost act as a guardian of social cohesion, without any blatant signs of lust, desire or passion. This peculiar barter arrangement, the beautifully interspersed farming sequences seem to imply, functions in synchrony with the natural state of the exquisitely filmed chickens, horses, dogs and other farm life gently carrying on with its business.

The sordid yet tranquil equipoise is upended by the appearance of Shai, a former moshav dweller who has returned to dispense with his recently deceased mother’s property. On the dusty sun-swept village road he runs across old acquaintance Tamar, and before long, glossing over the superfluity of dialogue or seduction, Tamar and Shai end up lovers, and then elliptically (almost) family. So it is that the eggs that Tamar sells for a living start shattering…

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Tamar, however, seems to have an innate, never-explained inability to refrain from the nihilistic encounters with the village men. Although the psychological background or evolution behind the sex is never broached – it seems that the author’s intention is for the audience to take human and livestock copulation at face value as a natural occurrence without need of justification – the dichotomy between the poignant sincerity of the sex scenes with her lover, and the mechanical, despondent feel of her encounters with the villagers is never in doubt. Visually the contrast is mediated by setting – the earthy, open-air acts with the neighbours are somehow almost embedded in the goings-on of farm life, while the actual love-making with Shai is reserved for a far more accustomed cinematic setting (the bedroom).

Soon enough the eerie atmosphere of the beautiful yet unsettling unfolding of this affair preludes the unavoidable tragic ending – the good-natured, generous yet manly Shai spreading chocolate on Tamar’s daughters’ breakfast, picking them up from school, repainting the house is just too good to be true and too good for Tamar. With one act of refusal of normalcy and family life (aborting Shai’s baby) she shatters the tenuous grasp of happiness and plunges back into her ‘slutty’ ways.

While the script does not delve into the underlying causes of the brevity of tranquil cohabitation and never overtly impeaches Tamar’s moral standing (but discreetly hints at the profoundly damaging effects of her behaviour on the pre-teen daughters – the elder trying to win Shai’s affection in all the wrong ways, the younger becoming an inadvertent pawn in his terrifying revenge), the punishment meted out on her in the final sequences leaves no doubt as to the destruction wreaked by her physical generosity. While never judged, the heroine is nevertheless sentenced: those whom she loves – and she really does appear to love her children and her lover – become the victims of her tenor.

Overall, The Slut is uncannily, unsettlingly enjoyable, and just like the story itself, leaves a bitter, disruptive aftertaste.

– Zornitsa Staneva

 

 

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