Losing Security but Gaining Freedom:
A Fine Balance in The Girls Were Doing Nothing
Review by Judith Mandy, PhD, Writer and Editor – Rating 9/10
Is it worth it to lose one’s sense of freedom, to lose the chance of experiencing the unpredictable and the new, or perhaps, even to lose one’s self in return for a stable and secure relationship? Or should we give up family life and intimacy in favour of freedom, adventure, and constant change? Can the two extremes somehow coexist?
These are the unsettling questions that young Israeli film maker, Dekel Berenson, raises in his short film, The Girls Were Doing Nothing. Berenson has written, directed, and produced a film that places us right in the middle of a seemingly picture-perfect marriage of two young, successful professionals who are increasingly bored and isolated from each other.
The film focuses on Marta, an architect, who tries, without much success, to re-kindle the passion in her relationship with a husband whose icy disinterest in her forces her to take stock of her need for both intimacy and freedom. In the film’s opening scenes we hear the passionate aria from Carmen declaring that “love is a gypsy child, he has never known the law.” Describing the irrational and conflicting nature of human emotions and love in particular, the lyrics unmistakeably foreshadow her need for both the love and the unpredictability that she desires.
As Marta and Jake’s marriage is revealed in the film’s early scenes, we see Marta intently listening to a radio broadcast in which a psychotherapist describes the dichotomy not only between the human need for security and freedom, but also for the contrasting needs for predictability and for experiences where the outcome is unknown. As she cooks their breakfast in their high rise, high- tech kitchen and gazes at her impassive husband, Marta, we realize, is living in a financially and seemingly emotionally secure world, but she is being suffocated by its predictability.
In Marta’s search for passion and connection, The Girls Were Doing Nothing echos Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. In Kubrick’s film, the scene that sets off the startling events in Bill and Alice’s relationship and “perfect” marriage, is when Alice reveals her desire to have made love with a naval lieutenant she saw on the family’s summer vacation. The conflict in the human need for security versus the adventure of the unknown is ultimately expressed when Alice reveals that while making love with Bill she continuously thought of the lieutenant—and yet still felt the most tenderness towards her husband. Alice’s conflicting emotions also underscore the confusion and difficulty that can come in trying to balance human needs for new sexual experiences and emotional bonds.
In The Girls Were Doing Nothing this struggle between security versus danger and togetherness versus freedom is not declared in words, but in the sex act itself. The struggle begins when both Marta and Jake become curious about a suitcase their vacationing neighbour has left with them. Just as the fantasy surrounding the lieutenant in Kubrick’s film wrecks havoc, the fantasy of their neighbour’s life is what upends Marta and Jake’s marriage.
Marta’s curiosity prompts her to find the neighbour’s Facebook page and in reading it, she realizes the true possibilities of her neighbour’s travels–for she’s not on vacation, nor on leave, but she has quit her job and ended a relationship. Intrigued by the boldness of this move, Marta interprets it as proof that a certain kind of freedom comes only with a clear break from security. The suitcase comes to symbolize this daring neighbour and Marta can’t resist opening it. While looking through personal letters and pictures, she is jolted to find a lace mask among sexy lingerie.
Unsettled by the discovery in the suitcase, Marta attempts to seduce Jake but is stung by his total lack of interest, even as she kisses him and parades past in her practical, non-sexy underwear. She is humiliated but is determined to create the passionate response that she so desperately seeks from Jake. At a sex shop she buys the type of lingerie that she has seen in the suitcase, and thus takes the first step towards “experiences of unknown outcomes” and more daring sexuality. By simply being in a shop that so openly endorses an exotic type of sexuality Marta opens herself to an emotional, if not physical, freedom.
Jake, too, has become curious about the contents of the suitcase and when Marta finds him looking at the mask and lingerie, they are both turned on by an exciting and new type of sex that the mask’s anonymity could provide: role playing the life of the neighbour who intrigues them. As Jake slips the mask on Marta they surprise themselves and push their usual emotional boundaries with rough sex– living the sexual adventure they fantasize is their neighbour’s and not realizing what the outcome might be for them. The couple slap and hit each other and Marta’s need to feel the strongest connection to Jake ends in her initiating anal sex. In their physical struggle Marta pushes Jake to behave aggressively and dominantly; she attacks him but then submits to his control—having initiated the struggle for this very purpose, forcing Jake to assert the masculinity he has long forgotten he posses.
In contrast to Kubrick’s couple who come to terms with their damaging fantasies and re-commit to their relationship, Marta and Jake appear not to have gained much from their fantasy experience. Still in bed after their new type of intimacy, Marta tries to explain how, from a male point of view, women are thought to be the observers in life, rather than the doers. She describes that as a school girl she and all the other children were sent to the playground, but it was only the boys who engaged in running around and playing games and the girls just stood and watched. To the teachers’ comments that “the girls were doing nothing” Marta tells Jake that they were not doing nothing, but they were, in fact, “watching.”
Marta explains that the “watching” was an activity in itself, and a much more significant activity than merely playing like the boys did. As the girls were watching and seemingly doing nothing, they were actually studying the boys and studying the world itself. From the boys’ perspective the girls might have functioned as simply the audience for their games, but in fact, the girls—by observing the boys, by whispering secrets, by sharing information—were learning and teaching each other about relationships, about how the world works. They became expert about it in a way that the boys never did or could.
Jake responds to Marta’s plea for understanding with his usual blank look and stony silence. His lack of response brings to mind the other times Marta reaches out to him, including hoping for some acknowledgement of her professional life. When she shows him her architectural sketches he gives a curt nod and then returns to his phone. He doesn’t engage with what she shows him, he simply acknowledges that he’s seen something that she’s pushed across the table. As she silently accepts these rejections, she is still “doing something”: she studies his mood, she regards his disinterest and notes the way he shuns excesses, both emotional and physical–even to the point of only partially dipping a sugar cube into his coffee, an act of non-completion, a symbol of his inadequate masculinity.
After the passionate sex, the couple soon reverts to their usual detachment from each other, since unlike Kubrick’s Alice, Marta’s self-revelation does not open the lines of communication and deeper understanding between the couple. It is at this point, however, that Bereson’s film has a subtlety that is lacking in Kubrick’s tidy—and potentially happy Hollywood– ending as Alice and Bill vow to turn their pain into a deeper commitment to each other.
Marta and Jake sit in yet another expensive restaurant and Marta tries once again to explain—this time through a blogger’s post she had read–her understanding of the “challenges” of staying together in a marriage. The blogger is someone who had challenged himself by travelling the world, experiencing one new adventure after another and having what many would think is a dream life. The irony is, as Marta explains, that the blogger is now bored with the “routine” of adventure and he sees that his new challenge is to “settle down”. She ends her narrative about the blogger with, “I think I get it.” With these few words Marta reveals that she understands how anything can become too routine and boring and that the real secret to living a full life is to remain open to change and to challenging one’s self in an endless journey of exploration.
When Marta’s revelation is met with the usual non-committal stare from Jake, her eye wanders and she notices a handsome man across the room. The man returns her contemplative glance and half- smile with a candid look that suggests all the possibilities of embarking on an adventure with “unknown outcomes”. Holding a clearer picture of her marriage to Jake and understanding her need for both security and adventure, Marta is determined to keep moving forward into the unknown territory of self discovery. She expresses this resolve as she dips a sugar cube into her coffee: she’s ready to remove it half-melted, but as the flavour of the coffee is changed by the cube, and the state of the cube is changed by the coffee, she realizes her life can be changed by her being open to new experiences. She then defiantly drops the sugar cube into the coffee, symbolizing her decision to take the plunge into the unknown. And, as the soaring music from Carmen returns, the lyrics now drenched with additional layers of meaning, Marta completes a full circle with the film’s first scenes, bringing the story to it’s resounding end but also, signaling a new beginning.
Review by Andrew Buckner – Rating: ***** out of *****
Thirty-something Marta (in a commanding, beautifully formed depiction from Katie Alexander-Thom), the heroine of “The Girls Were Doing Nothing” (2017), has a sharp retort concerning the debut title of writer-director Dekel David Berenson’s short film (the twenty-one minute work in progress “press preview” cut of which I base this review upon). It comes while Marta regales her similarly aged husband, Jake (in a quietly stalwart turn from Malcolm Jeffries), with a yarn from her youth. In this tale, the boys in her school would go out to play football. She goes out of her way to affirm that they would engage in such an activity in even the harshest snows of winter. While watching them busily go about their sports, Marta’s teacher would pose a question to the young ladies of the learning institution. This was why they “were doing nothing.” Here the thesis statement of this slyly enigmatic, deeply meditative and highly symbolic production arrives. This is when Marta, with agitation visibly growing in both her voice and eyes, declares: “We weren’t doing nothing. We were watching”.
Such directly explains the hypnotic, subtle and clandestine tone of this erotically charged tour de force. Previously titled “The Vacation”, this presentation calls to mind Stanley Kubrick’s underrated masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Lars von Trier’s same held Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and 2 (2013). This parallel is visible in the sheer craftsmanship on display. It can also be spotted in its mature handling of carnal subject matter. In retrospect, Berenson is providing the audience the opportunity to tread in the footsteps personified by the young ladies in Marta’s chronicle. Yet, this accrues in an undoubtedly adult world. We view the measures of Marta’s daily life, whether she is going through photographs or trying to quietly provoke her husband’s sensual passions, without the component of clarifying precisely what is transpiring at every narrative twist. Given that this element is far too prevalent in cinema nowadays, the decision to excise what most would deem pivotal makes the proceedings even more riveting. It also comes across as refreshing and natural. Keeping true to this structure, the credible and gorgeously penned dialogue (which was partially inspired by psychologist Carol Gilligan) is kept to a minimum. Such makes the results increasingly voyeuristic and addictively appealing. The concluding sequence, which wordlessly proposes what is too come, is especially brilliant and captivating.
Despite this brave stylistic approach, another telltale sign of Berenson’s incredible risk-taking capabilities, the engaging plot thread is never lost. Even when we find ourselves unsure of why some sights are unfolding, Berenson forces our imagination to fill in the blanks. Moreover, our interest, our glimpse into Marta’s world of luxurious restaurants, private gyms and high-paying professional positions adds to the fascinating rhythm of the demonstration. All of this is punctuated further by the Marta’s inner-struggles to overcome the commonplace motions of her marriage. It makes the piece as much an exhibition of routine as it is a meditation on how to break out of such a monotonous extension of events. Marta and Jake find it in their charismatic neighbor, Andrea (a well-rounded, extraordinary enactment from Jolie Sanford). This occurs when she asks the couple to do a favor for her while she is on vacation. Such an invite becomes an unexpected chance to add both variety, spontaneity and intimacy to their lives. Yet, they soon learn the paradox of this meticulously paced fiction. This comes in the form of a quote from psychotherapist Esther Perel, which is exposed in the opening moments of the invention. This is that “Love longs for closeness, desire thrives in distance. And therein lies the rub”.
Adding to the sheer excellence at hand is the highly representative imagery. For instance, there is a shot near the commencement which also closes the effort. This is of a sugar cube absorbing. It is ultimately spied as a perfect mark of Marta’s bland, imprisoned outlook on life slowly wilting away. Additionally, it declares her willingness to find the exhilaration in being by seizing new prospects when they arise. There are several sequences involving Marta’s blood which are powerfully indicative of feminism. Aside from this, the undertaking is further graced by sensational editing from both Fabrizio Gammardella and Berenson. Phillip Quinton’s sound issuance is spectacular. The camera crew, consisting of Pete Blakemore, Melanie Jansen and Tom Blount, provides a spellbinding contribution. Elizabeth Hedley’s make-up design is stellar. Lem Lawrence’s visual effects significantly enhance the authenticity radiating from every frame. Kamil Lemie’s scant appearance in a role dubbed “1920’s Guy” and Samantha Whaley’s bit as a retail assistant are both deft and intriguing. The costumes by Britt Seel are superb. Such an ingredient fits the contemporary impression of the sum grandly. Music consultant Heather Hadar Gallar incorporates an operatic soundtrack. This only strengthens the overall imprint. It also impeccably reinforces the attitude of the exertion beautifully. Likewise, Berenson’s screenplay and guidance of the project is proficient and carefully constructed. The cinematography by Ruaraid Achilleos-Sarll is sumptuous and sweeping. These greatly piqued qualities aid mightily in making Berenson’s latest an absolute knockout. This is guaranteed to be a surefire hit with spectators once it begins its run at cinema festivals.
“The Girls Were Doing Nothing” is the first of three similarly brief, unified compositions. All of them deal with intense notions of fondness, lovemaking and personal bonds in one manner or another. These are collectively known as The Eros Trilogy. The next two labors, continuations of the account set forth with this initial undertaking, are “Borderlines” (2017) and “The Surface of All Things.” No due date has been given for the final segment.
This is more than a reason for excitement. The characters in this initiating episode are genuinely etched. Berenson is unafraid to paint real people on his celluloid canvas. Everyone we encounter, Marta and Jake especially, have flaws and likable traits woven in equal ration. Yet, the air of mystery in this 168 Wardour Filmworks, Bekke Films and Radiator IP Sales release is palpable throughout. It suggests many different directions that Berenson can pilot the opus in upcoming episodes. This is so much so that one cannot help but anticipate seeing where he takes the fabrication. What elevates this anticipation is that Berenson’s latest affair is among the most memorable and outstanding concoctions of its type I’ve witnessed all year. Berenson has an undeniable knack for storytelling. Such is boosted by his gifted team and their respective donations. These essentials fill the screen with ongoing resonance and awe. Rich in mentality, emotion and subtext, Berenson has evoked a winner on all fronts.
The Girls Were Doing Nothing: A Wave of Intimate Changes 9/10
Review by Galina Maksimovic – Film Critic
Emerging from a seemingly simple question whether the feeling of security in a love relationship excludes the opportunity to experience excitement and adventure, Dekel Berenson’s short “The Girls Were Doing Nothing Wrong” (2017) branches into numerous layers of questions and meanings. The film immerses into the very depth of subtle love problems and general life issues, contrasting them very clearly – safety versus passion, the routine of the comfort zone versus the irresistibility of the unknown, love intertwined with closeness versus desire intertwined with the feeling of distance.
Berenson, who has also written and produced this cinematic delight, introduces us to Marta, an architect, who desperately tries to reestablish passion with her husband Jake. By the imagery of their micro-world, we can see they have comfortable lives – a cozy apartment, a chance to go to some nice cafes, eat good food, and enjoy a general sense of financial security. And yet, something is missing. Something big. There doesn’t seem to be any excitement in their lives. The coffees they drink, the food they eat, the comfort they are cuddled in – it all seems like something they are dealing with for so long that it doesn’t make any sense anymore.
A careful viewer will be thrilled by the directorial ideas subtly presented in these slow-burning but emotionally packed seventeen minutes. Marta’s and Jake’s relationship is very cleverly depicted. We can see them drawn in a polarized way, always on different sides of the table, separated in a geometrical way. We can almost imagine a long, thick line between them all the time. Their traits are also highly polarized – while she is obviously bothered by the lack of excitement in their lives, he seems as he doesn’t even notice such things. While she actively tries to seduce him and light his fires, he doesn’t show much interest in it. While her curiosity wakes up easily, he needs some time.
Marta’s curiosity is woken up as soon as their neighbor leaves a suitcase at their place. While the neighbor claims she is on a vacation, she actually leaves to start from a scratch after quitting her job and breaking up with her boyfriend. Marta is somehow inspired by her neighbor’s guts to act so spontaneously. Now left with her neighbor’s baggage from the past, Marta gently touches the suitcase full of stickers from all over the world. Having the entire world under her fingertips, she obviously feels how immobile her position is. She dreams of an adventure. The suitcase she opens is an invitation to an adventure but she has to try hard if she doesn’t want to spend the adventure alone. What does she find inside? Nothing more than some erotic laundry, some lace, something she probably doesn’t wear for a long time or she hasn’t worn in her life. Yet, this pile of sexy lingerie triggers her sexuality to explode, inspiring her to buy some nice underwear for herself and renew the passion with her husband. After what we have seen before, with all the heavy routine, a sexual adventure would definitely be a great change for them.
Jake is not a talkative character (well, nobody in this film is) but he says a lot about Marta. As we see him and his passive lifestyle, we completely understand Marta’s struggle. They are not so old to give up spontaneity but they are not so young anymore. Jake seems to be pretty reconciled with the transience of their youth. His silence in front of Marta’s shriek for an adventure actually tells us a lot about her attempts and the fact that her desires cannot be achieved that easily. But they are achievable. This couple eventually experiences the sex they haven’t practiced earlier – they make love and fight, they don’t restrain from slapping each other and being extremely rough. This remarkable scene sheds a bright light on both what they are missing – excitement – and how much do they miss it. At this moment we can all understand them. As rough as it is, this scene is still pretty poetic, bringing the poignancy where we don’t expect it.
This powerful story wrenched from an average everyday life of two people is supported by a strong visual language. Berenson creates characters capable of communicating in unconventional ways, non-verbally. We understand Jake when he touches a piece of furniture to check if there is any dust. We understand Marta when she touches the suitcase. We understand both Jake and Marta when they dip sugar cubes in the coffee, both in their own manners. The non-verbal, or, let’s say, extra-verbal communication continues through other ways – checking Facebook, reading a blog, listening to a therapist on the radio. In a nutshell, Berenson has built a specific network of meanings by using mostly non-direct means of communication. When Marta actually speaks to Jake very directly and openly, it means we are at the very core of her thoughts and emotions. She talks about her childhood memories, when the girls were watching the boys as they played football. She claims it is not true that they were doing nothing. Actually, as you will understand after this film, the girls were not doing nothing – the playground is where they’ve learned the most.
This film strongly engages the viewers on many levels – from its visual identity, balanced photography enriched by precise editing, to its minimalistic approach to a deep subject, from its simplicity to its complexness. It invites us to think about the traditional views on marriage and its modern context. Even more, it invites us to question the universal subject of individual freedom and ask ourselves whether it can survive the compromises marriage as a safe zone brings. All in all, this beautiful short will certainly intrigue the audience and draw them into its unique network of questions inwrought into the protagonists’ but also the viewers’ lives. Judging by this piece, Berenson will hopefully have a lot to offer in the future, just like he did in this film.
“…This film carries the mood that stays with the viewers long after they stop watching. all these things – HUGE” – Aleksandra Rychlicka, Writer
“Even in it’s unfinished state it is quite a striking piece of film that doesn’t shy away from some very provocative scenes. Your actors are extremely brave, the shots are flawless and the locations are great. you’ve done a sterling job so far especially noting that you wrote, directed and produced the whole thing yourself, it must have been and absolute nightmare.” – Joseph Stacey, Producer
“The film is breathtaking, at first glance slow and not a lot of events happening but it captures all the attention, so half hour for me was like 3 minutes . I totally lost track of time. Love how you captured small details, love your bravery and frankness. The actress is stunning. The sex scene was so sexy …. I have no words. I am amazed and so happy you made it.”
“Katie Alexander-Thom performs a phenomenally relatable character, who presents a woman at her weakest, struggling to love and value herself again. She depicts truthfully, the later stages of a relationship, realising she is an individual, and finding her own strength. The film’s flawless aesthetic should not go unnoticed. The modern setting, and bland tones reflect Marta’s impression of her life. The soft lighting helps us see her unclear mind. After she begins to sense some self-empowerment, she is sexualised in red, and the shadows become bolder as we realised she has began to form a somewhat hidden agenda. As part of a trilogy, I am excited to see the depiction of the whole story, or common theme emerging. Do look out for the film in festivals and programs, and prepare yourself with an open mind.” – Siona Davis, Producer