Joe (Veronica Kedar) is a drug dealer, reluctantly visiting her home country of Israel. Belle (Sivan Levy) is an angst-ridden lesbian teenager who feels that her parents don't understand her. Belle is on her way home when she decides to jump out of her mother's car at a stoplight, and she is stopped just short of a rooftop suicide by the sight of Joe's bathroom in the building across the street. When Joe returns home from a drop, she finds Belle lying in her bathtub, having broken the window; it's the beginning of a long night for the pair that weaves its way through unexpected romance, accidental murder, and a flight from the police into a nearby war zone.
Joe + Belle is primarily the work of Kedar, who co-wrote and directed the picture (her feature debut) in addition to starring. Sadly, although she gives a decent performance and there are fleeting moments of sexual electricity between herself and Levy, the screenplay is a murky, coincidental mess. Supporting characters exist to pad out screen time, dramatic momentum is frequently undercut for poor comedy, and large patches of story and character motivation are entirely unclear, including the film's ending.
The film's biggest problem is Belle, who is one of those agonizing characters frequently described in press materials as an "unpredictable free spirit" or some such nonsense. In terms of Joe + Belle, "unpredictable free spirit" translates to a character relied on to do whatever random thing is necessary to advance the story, like randomly breaking into a bathroom to lie in the tub, shooting people, whacking a cop with a telephone, etc. She has no apparent motivation for these actions; the viewer is just supposed to accept that she's a rebel, and also to find her recklessness endearing and fun. Since we are never told anything about who she is beyond her spontaneity, it plays as grating instead. As far as being a lesbian romance, Belle also manages to (if I understand the movie correctly) pull out some sort of subconscious lesbian attraction in Joe. Before they meet, she talks about boyfriends and initially resists Belle's advances, which all seems very strange. Kedar doesn't fill Joe in enough for the viewer to understand her emotional journey from what seems like a straight woman to head-over-heels in lesbian love.
In general, it would help if the characters reacted to Belle in a rational way, but Joe, in attraction and otherwise, and the supporting characters in the movie are pretty demure about this girl butting into their lives and turning everything upside down, kicking things off by killing a stranger in Joe's apartment. One character, Abigail (Romi Aboulafia) is supposedly deeply in love with Belle's victim, but after learning that the girls are responsible for his death, they head to a party together, with another 30 minutes passing before she decides that some sort of revenge is in order. Meanwhile, a lazy police officer is sort of involved, with Abigail and the hunt for the girls, but has enough free time in his fast-paced investigation to play Rock Band with Abigail.
The Israeli backdrop is one of the movie's few interesting aspects, but (despite constant radio chatter that Belle enjoys listening to), she doesn't really explain the situation with enough clarity for it to impact the audience. There's never a sense of how dangerous Joe and Belle's journey is, or what their goal is in heading for the border. After an awkward open-mic night climax (really), the film signs off with a baffling epilogue visible underneath the end credits that suggests a really extreme conclusion. All things considered, there are certainly parts of Kedar's efforts that are respectable, but Joe + Belle is a messy movie that never settles on what it wants to be.
Joe + Belle comes in a standard Amaray case with a glossy postcard / $5 Wolfe Video coupon tucked inside. The cover art is nicely eye-catching with the red-and-black color scheme, even if "The Lesbian Thelma and Louise" is a pretty desperate-sounding tagline.
The Video and Audio
Hoo boy. Joe + Belle is an Israeli production, so the elements for this DVD transfer did not originate from Wolfe. Many low-budget transfers of foreign movies are limited in this way, but this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is easily one of the worst I've ever seen. Specifically, the contrast is entirely out-of-whack -- a middling gray is as dark as any part of the transfer ever gets, even in the dingiest, poorly-lit apartments. Interlacing is obvious, fine detail is non-existent (swallowed by the murk), artifacting is noticeable, colors occasionally appear oversaturated thanks to the wonky contrast, and on top of it all, the subtitles are burned into the picture. That this presentation is 16x9 enhanced seems like a miracle.
Hebrew Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is nothing special, but compared to the picture it seems amazing. Surround channels are reasonably active with ambience and music, dialogue is clean and crisp. This isn't going to test anyone's speaker system, but it's fine. A Hebrew 2.0 track is also included.
A short making-of featurette (7:39) is made up of on-set B-roll, showing Kedar managing her film, the cast goofing off, and other trials and tribulations of low-budget filmmaking. A music video for "By My Side" (2:30) is also included, which has footage of the finished film that looks slightly more accurate than the feature presentation.
A PSA about piracy and a trailer for Tomboy play when the disc is put into the player, and additional trailers for The Guest House, Kiss Me, Leading Ladies, A Marine Story, and Trigger are accessible from the extras menu. An original trailer for Joe + Belle is also included, which is also much more accurate than the feature films in terms of black levels.
Despite strong cultural roots and a decent premise, director / co-writer / actor Veronica Kedar can't quite blend her ideas into a cohesive film. Skip it.
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