Bold Israeli Film 'Princess' Left Our Critic Dazed and Confused

Real or imagined? An intriguing film about a young girl’s emergence into her sexual identity keeps the audience guessing.

Uri Klein
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Shira Haas and Ori Pfeffer in 'Princess.'
Shira Haas and Ori Pfeffer in 'Princess.'
Uri Klein

Even after a second viewing of “Princess” – I first saw Tali Shalom-Ezer’s debut feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2014 – I still don’t know what to make of it. The movie shows clear talent as well as ambition, some of which, at least, is aimed in interesting directions; but did this talent and ambition result in a work whose virtues make up for its flaws? Or does “Princess” get lost inside its own presumption?

There is no question that the writer-director undertook a task of complicated duplicity – to make a movie that keeps the audience constantly guessing whether what we are seeing is really happening, or is shaped by the perspective of the 12-year-old heroine, Adar (Shira Haas), a girl who is only beginning to form a feminine identity.

Shalom-Ezer’s wish to make a movie about the emergence of that identity is itself commendable. Growing into one’s sexual gender and sexual identity is a confusing time; but the question is whether the best way to represent this process is in a movie that is itself confusing and confused.

Possibly, Shalom-Ezer did not intend to make a movie of that sort, but somehow got swept into the confusion she wanted to depict and lost emotional and conceptual control of her own work. Before I continue, I should warn that what I am about to say may include mini-spoilers; those who dislike them might want to stop here.

Perversity rules “Princess” from its opening scene, in which Alma (Keren Mor), a doctor, is seen gently waking her boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), and her daughter, Adar, who are sleeping side by side in the same bed. Later on we will learn that Adar and Michael don’t usually share a bed; Alma apparently got up earlier, and Adar is in the habit of crawling into Alma and Michael’s bed at night.

They don’t refuse her, even when they are in the middle of having sex. In general, Alma and Michael – a teacher who quit his job and spends most of his time in the apartment of his divorced girlfriend and her daughter – display their sexual attraction to each other freely in Adar’s presence.

Watching this, we already begin to ask ourselves whether this is the way they really act, or whether what we see is actually Adar’s projection of her own awakening sexual curiosity onto her mother’s relationship.

Extreme portrayal

Adar is a pretty girl, somewhat androgynous-looking. She largely avoids school, where she is under threat of expulsion, and prefers to spend her days roaming the streets. One day she meets Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), who looks like her identical male twin. Alan lives on the street and apparently works as a prostitute. The subject of teen male prostitution comes up more than once in “Princess.” There is another male character who earns money the same way, but he only makes one short appearance and has no real role in the movie. In another scene, Michael drives Adar at night to what used to be a drive-in movie theater outside Tel Aviv to watch the young male prostitutes in action. Does this really happen? Or is the movie’s extreme portrayal of this theme supposed to represent Adar’s curiosity about the fluidity of sexual identity and its expression? If so, what does this say about the internal processes Adar is undergoing as she comes of age?

Here it is important to note the two main male protagonists of “Princess”: the boy Alan, and the man Michael. Adar and Alan bond instantly, seeming like the two halves of a single entity, one male (when Adar first sees Alan, he is playfully boxing with another boy, a quintessentially “male” activity) and the other female.

Adar invites her new homeless friend to live with them; Alma and Michael agree, and the two begin to share Adar’s room. Whenever we see them together, whether on the street or in Adar’s home, they are clearly presented as analogues – for example, by dressing the same.

Is Alan a real human being, or a figment of Adar’s imagination, representing her own emerging, uncertain sexual identity and her awareness of a possible male alter ego inside her? The fact that Alma and Michael acknowledge Alan and welcome him into their home, where the four of them even dine together, does not completely remove the ambiguity.

It could all be imaginary or real at the same time, and at some point these multiple possibilities begin to make “Princess” oppressive. Including Alan in the movie is an interesting choice, but the question remains whether Shalom-Ezer makes satisfactory use of his character. Alan’s appearance marks another stage in Adar’s sexual development; as soon as he moves into her room, she no longer feels the need to join her mother and Michael in their bed while they are having sex. But somehow, Alan’s arrival and eventual departure – which is also meant to represent some stage in Adar’s move into puberty, including declaration that she is now a woman – only confuse the result. Although the intentions behind his character are clear, his presence also seems somewhat calculated and even forced. And this leads us to the movie’s central male protagonist, Michael, who on the movie’s real-life level – and here I really am providing a spoiler – can be seen as a strange, perverted man, a pedophile whose predilections reach a cruel climax in the movie. If we consider him part of the imaginary level of “Princess,” we might say that this is how Adar shapes him in her consciousness, a response to the powerfully sexual male presence expressed in his relationship with her mother. The scene in which Adar meets her biological father, who has been shut out of her life, underscores the conflict between the real and the imagined, because the “real” father represents a very different kind of man.

Only the ongoing clash between the movie’s two levels, which Shalom-Ezer cannot or will not resolve, allows us to accept the ending, which I will not describe here. If we took the movie only on a literal level, that ending would be completely unacceptable; the movie itself would then seem like an inverted pyramid, whose materials all flow down into one predictable conclusion of the plot, and that is certainly not what the director intended.

As I said: confusing and confused. It may be that in her first feature, Shalom-Ezer set herself a distinguished, even bold agenda, but the task was beyond her reach. Her desire to explore a girl’s emerging sexual and gender identity is laudable, and “Princess” certainly isn’t a trivial film. Watching it makes me hope that in her next movies, if the writer-director wishes to continue exploring female identity, she will do it in a more organized, disciplined way. Therefore, despite my reservations about it, “Princess” is an intriguing work, worth seeing as the first stage in what I hope will be a continuing career.