"We are all second generation," says one mournful soul in Jellyfish, Keret's first venture into feature filmmaking, written and co-directed by his wife, Shira Geffen, who's traveling with him but remained in New York with their young son. Perhaps because it was written by a woman, Jellyfish is softer, more feminine and elegiac in tone, less inclined to jolt or goose the viewer, than Keret's stories. Still, like the recent hit The Band's Visit, it belongs to a new breed of Israeli movies — domestic rather than political in focus, and formally more sophisticated than the realist war dramas and blunt comedies that until recently kept Israeli cinema in the boondocks of international cinema.

There's no mistaking the addled suffering of the three floundering women at the movie's center — a waitress trying to reconnect with her damaged childhood self, an inexperienced bride on her honeymoon, and a Filipina maid longing to return home to her little boy. Along with a sizable ensemble of equally lost ancillary characters who rattle around Tel Aviv, crossing paths as they struggle, in Keret's words, "to make a life out of nothing," these women will be entirely familiar to his fans, as will the film's guiding metaphor — a boneless, see-through fish that can't control its movements, that stings reactively rather than with malice, because it is vulnerable.

What stands out in Jellyfish, as in Keret's writing, is the twisted but potent love of family — distant mothers, incompetent fathers, stuck adult children who can't or won't transcend their troubled early years. The movie grew out of a childhood experience in which Geffen's parents, who later divorced, had a fight and left her alone on the beach for a few minutes with the fear that the ocean would carry her away. Like many Israelis, both Keret and Geffen come from families with built-in melodrama, though their sensibilities are radically different. "My wife would say we're living in a romantic comedy," he says. "I'd say no, no, we're living in a high-budget drama."

Etgar Keret and his wife, Shira Geffen, on the set of Jellyfish.
Etgar Keret and his wife, Shira Geffen, on the set of Jellyfish.

Geffen, a playwright and poet, is descended from what passes for Israeli royalty. "Like the Kennedys, only without the money," Keret says, grinning. Her grandmother was Moshe Dayan's sister, her father the writer and lyricist Yehonatan Geffen; her brother is Israeli rock superstar Aviv Geffen, another outspoken voice of alienated Israeli youth.

Their experiences equipped them poorly for parenthood, Keret says candidly, and they made every mistake possible in raising their kids. He shrugs. "As a parent, you're going to fuck up your child's life. It's a given, and it's just a question of how." But, he says, "If you love someone strongly enough, it doesn't matter." I don't have the kishkes to ask if he's undergone psychoanalysis.

Keret was given the unusual name Etgar, which in Hebrew means "challenge," when, after three miscarriages, his mother refused a doctor's advice to terminate her fourth dangerous pregnancy. Though his parents loved art and reading, they didn't encourage artistic ambition in their son, who was supposed to enter Haifa's Technion to study engineering. But coming home from a bar mitzvah one night when Keret was a child, his father told him, "If, 20 years from now, you'll be a rich doctor with a beautiful wife and a beautiful house and have healthy children and that's it, then I'll be very disappointed in you."

The beautiful wife and the healthy kid are now in place, but that is very far from it. Jellyfish won the Camera d'Or for best debut feature at Cannes last year, and has done robust niche business in Israel and in limited release in France, Italy (where it was released by the noted director Nani Moretti) and New York. Keret has spent time at the International Writers Workshop in Iowa, and his stories now appear in the Paris Review and get reviewed in all the top book supplements. And he will go on making films, a welcome relief from the lonely egocentrism of writing fiction, whenever he has the time. You could say that Etgar Keret has risen to his challenge.

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