Worst date ever? How about being invited to a book club by an attractive woman only to be rated on your physical attractiveness and then murdered and ground up into sausage. In Guilhad Emilio Schenker’s new thriller, MADAM YANKELOVA’S FINE LITERATURE CLUB, making its international premiere at Fantastic Fest, Sophie (Keren Mor) has been stuck at 98 trophies for a long time. With a 100 trophies in the women’ only club, she joins the ranks of the lordesses, and can live lavishly with servants, but her age makes her a candidate to become a servant herself. After her 99th win, she is given an ultimatum, win this week or clean floors for the rest of her life. But then she falls in love, something against the rules of the club.
The film, a dark fantasy that plays as a fable about the power of love, builds up a fascinating world of gender-politics. Quirky performances keep the film light even if the setting feels slightly dystopic. Shot like a dream, MADAM YANKELOVA’S FINE LITERATURE CLUB dips in and out of cartoon gothic, like Tim Burton funneled through the lens of deviantart.com. Schenker says this is Israel’s first fantasy film, and if the idiosyncratic outlook on love is any indication, I hope there will be more.
I had a chance to sit down with writer/director Guilhad Emilio Schenker at Fantastic Fest:
Schenker: I am a real fan of fantasy books and films, giving the filmmakers and the writers and the directors the privilege to create worlds. To create new dimensions and to create stories that are not chained to reality. That was the easy part for me, to write the story and invent the world and to invent the rules. I do it seven times a day. I am building dimensions in my head, so for me that was the easy part; to sail on the imagination and to invent worlds. The tough part was to actually make it.
BEARS: What was important in terms of the way the club was set up?
Schenker: Each lady who came to the club, each has her own story that we chose not to tell. It was a decision not to tell each one’s story. But each one of them got to the club, they were hurt by men. We talked a lot about it but we decided to leave the audience without their background. When they come to the club, they are supposed to be in their first stage of being an adult woman, between the ages of 20 and 50. They are the official club members. They have to compete, each one of them, with each other who brings the most handsome man home to the club each week. If you manage to bring the most handsome man to the club, you win a trophy. You are the woman of the week.
BEARS: When you enter the club, you’re making a challenge with yourself. You’re like, “I’m betting I can get the 100 sexiest guys here. I’m willing to bet that on my looks.” So what kind of women join the club?
Schenker: You don’t have to bring them only by your looks. You can be sexy in many, many ways. For example, Hannah, who is bigger and older, manages to bring the most sexy men and helps her friend Sophie. Feeling sexy is something from the inside. I don’t think it’s only about the looks. It’s about many things how they manage to bring the most sexy guy to the club. Each one of them joined the club because they were hurt in some way from men. They hate men. They don’t believe in love. They think love is a four-letter word, two idiots, and one broken heart.
BEARS: But then your film basically becomes about the conquering nature of love. It’s almost a cheesy theme, but it’s love conquers all. Essentially, love undoes the club. Are you a believer in the world of love?
Schenker: I am a softie. I wrote this script when I was broken-hearted. Completely broken-hearted. I hated the world. I hated love. I was depressed. I didn’t believe love existed anymore because I was cheated. I was treated badly. When I wrote in the beginning, the first draft of the film had a very, very dark and very bad ending that says there is no love in the world, everybody’s fucked up, and love is a lie. Love is a big lie that everybody tells us. But then toward the end of the production, I fell in love. So, then I changed the end.
BEARS: We’ve seen so many movies for years that take female beauty and make it into a commodity. In this case, you’re taking male beauty and turning it into a commodity. Can you talk a little bit about turning that inside out?
Schenker: That was the basic idea of the film to reverse the way that world works — this world that we’re living in works. In most parts of the world, in most parts of the films, in the reality we live, usually men are the ones who judge women. Men rate women, especially by their looks. I wanted to reverse it and make it the women that controlled the world, they are the strong ones.
BEARS: Tell me about S. Y. Agnon, the author they are reading in the book club.
Schenker: I want to talk about two inspirations I had for the film. One of them is my friend called Segal. Segal, she is my best friend and she is my muse. All the things I write, I write about her. She is a very strong woman. Once in a while, she invites me to have dinner at her house and she always makes the same thing: schnitzel and mashed potatoes. I was sitting in her house, having a schnitzel, like usual and I started to ask her, “what’s going on with this guy you’ve been dating for a while?” I was in the middle of eating the schnitzel and she looked at my plate and said, “well, here he is.” I almost choked on the schnitzel because she gave me this look in the eyes. I’m not sure that she didn’t do it. In that moment I knew that this is a story I want to tell about her and her relationship with men. I built the club around her. One story both of us are very much fond of is the story of The Lady and the Peddler, of Agnon, a Jewish writer that died many, many years ago. He told this dark theme about a woman that keeps marrying men, and then she kills them, and eats them. She gives them food, she —how you say, pumps them — fattens them up. Eventually she kills them and eats them. This is a story we both love from many, many years before and I started to write this film.
Schenker: I have no idea. He is my favorite writer ever, so I really hope he would like it. His son and daughter are still alive. One of the things I really want is for them to see it.
BEARS: Tell me about the setting.
Schenker: For me, as a big fan of Tim Burton, one of the things I really like in his films is that they are disconnected from time and space.
BEARS: We have such a disconnection with the actual printed page now. The idea of a library being somewhere you would go is almost a foreign idea.
Schenker: Except of the fact that the film is in Hebrew, you can’t really connect it to Israel in any way. We shot everything in a studio, so you can’t even see sites in Israel that you can understand where are they. We really wanted to disconnect it, to make it like a pure fantasy. You don’t know where are you. You don’t know exactly when are you. You have telephones, but you don’t have computers. You have cars but you don’t exactly what period of time you are. It’s a time we invented. It’s a place we invented. It’s a completely other world. We call it a dark fantasy. Fairytales for grownups.