Writers: Eytan Fox and Itay Segal
Director: Eytan Fox
It’s surprising that we haven’t had more films about the Airbnb phenomenon as it proves to be a fertile ground for storytelling. Last year Amazon Prime released The Rental, a slow-burn horror from David (brother of James) Franco, and now comes Sublet, an Israeli May to September drama playing at this year’s BFI Flare Festival. If The Rental was a cautionary tale about murderous hosts, then Sublet is its opposite, focusing instead on the kindness of strangers.
However, Eytan Fox’s film begins with a few suggestions that horror might just be round the corner. Michael, a 50-something journalist has come to Tel Aviv and is renting a young filmmaker’s apartment. As he shows his partner back home in The States the flat through his phone’s FaceTime, they laugh at the Nightmare on Elm Street poster tacked up on the wall. More worryingly and uncommented upon is the poster for Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, another tale about a holiday gone wrong.
But there are no killers stalking this corner of Tel Aviv which is, as Tomer points out to his guest, at the top of Time Out London’s list of the sexiest places in the world. The reason for the creepy posters on the wall is that Tomer is finishing his film degree at university; he specialises in ‘artistic horror’. But making films costs money and so Tomer occasionally rents out his apartment. Usually when this happens he will couch-surf at his friends’ houses in the city, but this time, with no sofas available, he’s couch-surfing on his own couch.
As an apology for this inconvenience Tomer becomes Michael’s city guide, showing him places off the beaten track. Fortunately, we don’t see many of these hidden gems ensuring that Sublet never becomes an advert for Israel, although it always looks vibrant and colourful. As Tomer, Niv Nissim, in incredibly his first film, is very convincing, swinging between sulkiness and excitement, completely inexperienced in how to communicate with anyone older than 25. His films are awful, but he has youth’s self-belief and he’s certain that his work means something. It’s very easy to see how Michael is drawn to him.
However, John Benjamin Hickey has a harder time in the portrayal of the New York Times journalist who writes a column about five-day holidays across the world. Hickey may look the part – slightly precious, overly sympathetic – but the script (written by Fox and Itay Segal) is weak at times. When Tomer remarks that Israel, despite being situated in the Middle East, acts as if it is in the West, Michael receives it as a revelation, and his clichéd summary of Tel Aviv’s contradictions would surely get him the sack from the NYT very quickly.
But despite the script’s failings – there is also an unnecessary subplot about surrogacy – Nissim and Hickey manage to create some real chemistry that brings them closer despite the difference in their ages and their different outlooks on life. Nissim, in particular, seems at ease behind the camera, and helps push the film towards its poignant and bittersweet ending. He never overplays Tomer’s daddy issues, and it comes as a surprise that he has any at all. Finally, it all makes sense, and Freudians will have a field day.
But it’s hard to think about Freud in all the bright sunshine that Tel Aviv provides, and although the film doesn’t quite bridge the ravine between the older gay generation who lived through AIDS and the younger generation who live through social media, Sublet, like the word suggests, does create a temporary understanding. Those expecting a modern day Death in Venice will be disappointed, but Fox’s reserve is his film’s greatest strength.
BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021