Samuel Maoz’s latest film has a clear imperative – to make a definitive statement about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while simultaneously refraining from the way in which definitive statements have become inextricable from the Israeli agenda. To that end, he adopts a dissonant aesthetic, structuring the film around three discrete acts that involve such abrupt transitions that Foxtrot effectively restarts twice. Like the third act, the first act could easily unfold as a play, depicting the reaction of a Tel Aviv family to the news that their older child, Jonathan Feldman, has been killed in conflict. The entire first forty minutes of the film depict them as they process this news, as Maoz outlines a remarkably visceral, embodied depiction of grief that fuses medical and military assistance, as the army representatives that have come to break the bad news also find themselves providing the family with injections, pills and instructions to drink every hour, along with a series of painstakingly detailed accounts of the funeral procedure for fallen soldiers. As we follow father Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and mother Daphna (Sarah Adler) around their austere top-floor apartment, we’re presented with one exercise in bodily grief after another, whether it’s Michael’s deliberate burning of his wrist under the faucet, to Daphna’s howl of agony, which leads on to a scene, in the third act, in which she scrubs her fingers until they bleed.
All that visceral intensity culminates with two key moments. First, Michael almost falls over when looking at a softcore pornographic magazine in his son’s bedside desk, setting the stage for a series of escalating faints and near-faints as he and his wife try to process the news. Second, it gradually becomes clear that there may even be no body for them to inspect, or that the body may be too desecrated to inspect – a revelation that turns all of Michael and Daphna’s visceral convulsions into so many attempts to provide and attest to the ongoing bodily presence that their son no longer possesses. Between those two concluding spectacles, a vision of Israeli manhood emerges in which the presence of the masculine body, and of an embodied relation between father and son, in particular, has been traumatically and irrevocably disavowed, resulting in a sustained and particularly masculinist mourning that eventually seems to exceed the specifics of this story and family.
Just when the pathos seems as if it can’t get any more unbearable, however, a second envoy of soldiers arrives to inform the family that the army has made a mistake, and that it was in fact another Jonathan Feldman who was killed in action. In some ways, the import of that announcement is even more traumatic than the original missive, sending Michael, in particular, into a torrent of convulsive relief as he demands that his son be brought home immediately, even as he mistrusts that he is actually still alive. Stranded between his recent death and his sudden revival, Jonathan feels even more abstracted form the family than ever, and Maoz chooses this exact moment of tonal dissonance to cut to the outpost that Jonathan, played by Yonaton Shiray, is guarding, along with several other adolescent Israeli soldiers. Neither subverting nor affirming the intense pathos of the opening act, this second act now plays as a kind of picaresque existentialism, as the young soldiers sit around, aimlessly, waiting for the occasional car to arrive at their checkpoint, which seems far removed from any military or administrative significance. For the most part, this act outlines a texture more than a narrative, grounded in classical cinema, vinyl and other outdated analog media, all of which are waterlogged and overwhelmed by the continuous rain and mud, which is gradually sinking the entire outpost, including the soldiers’ living quarters, into the desert.
This act largely unfolds by way of a series of free-floating military sequences that are dissociated from any sense of broader political conflict, and instead processed, by the soldiers, as spectacles above all else, albeit spectacles from an older and more distant era. Their watch tower, in particular, functions more like a cinematic projection booth than a military intervention, especially at night, when its spotlight transforms whatever it lights upon into a black-and-white, classicist mise-en-scene, outlining one fragment of Israeli and Palestinian life after another as vehicles move through the checkpoint. Perhaps they’re the people the soldiers are fighting for, perhaps they’re the people they’re fighting against, but it never seems to matter, since they’re all so many refugees from another cinematic era, momentarily lit up and then vanishing back into the night, as if the only thing motivating this military presence in the first place were an inchoate and unformed sense of pastness, and of paying homage to an amorphous pastness. Within that landscape, the main common denominator with the opening act consists of the vertical pans that destabilize the relation between the soldiers and their terrain, subsuming and collapsing them into it even as they are supposed to be surveilling it. After the crisis that sets the third act in motion – the accidental massacre of a car of teenagers – that verticality climaxes with a long shot of the vehicle in question being buried by an army vehicle, and the ground being cleared over the top, for the first level surface we see in this act, even as the rain starts to disrupt it again.
Understandably, that crisis produces a pervasive dissonance and anxiety for the three soldiers, and it’s at this point that Maoz cuts back to the third act, which takes place back in the Tel Aviv apartment, where the parents once again seem to be in the midst of their grief. Gradually, it becomes clear that Jonathan was killed by a road accident after being demanded to return from the front by his father, leading to a series of disquisitions and discussions between the two parents that gradually revolve around the self-defeating nature of Israeli masculinity, which is elaborated in various ways. On the one hand, Michael confesses that he let a tank go ahead of him when he was a soldier, only to see it blow up, producing a guilt that he thought he had abolished with the birth of his son. At the same time, he explains the significance of the Foxtrot to his wife, a dance and motif that has percolated throughout the film, but which here, somewhat heavily-handedly, is finally directly articulated as a metaphor for self-defeating territorialism and masculine pride. Finally, a short animated sequence inserted between the two acts elaborates the story of Jonathan’s softcore magazine in more detail, building a cartoonish and caricatured backstory to his father, in which purchasing the magazine, in exchange for a Bible handed down by his grandmother for the Holocaust, condemns him to a fruitless life of self-regarding and solipsistic autoeroticism.
No doubt, the film is earnest in its effort to provide some kind of deconstruction of Israeli masculinity – and it’s no coincidence that the aerial shots of the first two acts are entirely absent here, replaced by a long swirling, sprialling pan shot that eschews any clam to a stable or surveillant account of the relation between figure and ground, or masculinity and homeland. Yet the fact of this all being confined, once again, to a nuclear family drama also creates a certain about of sententious tedium as well, to the point where it finally feel as if Foxtrot exemplifies many of the attitudes that it is supposedly deconstructing. While the Foxtrot itself may be an apt metaphor for movement without movement, it also works quite naturally to allegorise a certain kind of self-pitying and self-regarding complacency that has been part and parcel of the affective orientation of Israel towards Palestine – a solipsism that finally suffuses Foxtrot as well, which may query the Israeli mindset, but never in a way that feels commensurate to the situation it is trying to articulate, setting Maoz a considerable challenge if he chooses to set his sights his homeland for his following feature.