CANNES - If you only see one incestuous Israeli father-daughter relationship study a year, well, it's pretty much going to have to be "That Lovely Girl." If your annual average is lower than that, chances are you won't be tempted to make an exception for Keren Yedaya's modestly accomplished third feature, which debuted to ashen-faced audiences in Un Certain Regard yesterday.
Detailing the cyclical fallout that occurs between a terminally insecure young woman and her infinitely abusive dad when outside figures intrude on their sexual relationship, it's a claustrophobic exercise in kitchen-sink horror that piles enough indignities upon its protagonist to fill several novels written by Sapphire. Its miserablism isn't garish, but neither is it all that sensitive: Yedaya surveys her victim with sympathy and some candor without getting very far under her skin.
It's generally a safe bet that when the word "lovely" appears in a title, it's a cover for some very queasy goings-on indeed. (See also: "Bones" and "Molly.") "That Lovely Girl" is no exception. The girl in question is Tami (Maayan Turgeman), a pretty, unconfidently chubby woman in her early twenties living with her single, respectably middle-aged father Moshe (Grad Tzahi) in a boxy Tel Aviv apartment. No mother figure is ever mentioned; the two appear to have been an interdependent unit for some time, dully accustomed to each other's rhythms as they dine, scantly converse and engage in frequent rough intercourse.
Though Tami isn't kept under lock and key by her dad, she appears to have practically sentenced herself to house imprisonment: 45 minutes of screen time pass before she, and we, even briefly leave the beige confines of her flat. Left to her own devices, her activities are as damaging as her family time, as she indulges in regular binge-and-purge junk food runs, and performs grievous self-harm with a Stanley knife. Her slap-happy father accepts this as part of the domestic routine, barely raising an eyebrow before bandaging up a wrist cross-hatched with many years' worth of such scars.
Yedaya's script, based on a novel by Israeli author and poet Shez, makes little attempt at backstory, though Moshe does casually, chillingly confess at one point that he immediately "fell in love" with the newborn Tami -- a fatherly sentiment that'd sound sweet in any other context. There's a kind of tactful restraint in the way Yedaya leaves us to imagine even the circumstances that enabled this warped coupledom, but there's a point at which respectful distance tips over into glassy indifference.
The approach is so hands-off that the characters struggle to escape their theoretical conception: despite gutsy, untempered work from both leads, their relationship never quite achieves believability, which makes the film's manifold cruelties less affecting than they should be. Nor does the director (who applied the word "hard" to the film at least five times while introducing it at last night's premiere) challenge audience perceptions by offering any glimpse of the monstrous Moshe's interior life. It'd be interesting, for example, to know what unseen facets of his personality snared the bubbly girlfriend he brings home to flaunt before his wifely daughter -- a final straw that provides the impetus for Tami's uncertain escape.
Still, Yedaya -- who won the Camera d'Or at Cannes a decade ago for her neatly titled debut "Or" -- is a deft enough filmmaker to make this underdeveloped material grimly compelling, picking up stony formal cues, it seems, from Austria's post-Haneke school of formalism. Her camera can be pushy, getting up in its protagonist's face as she gaspingly eats alone -- torrents of tears and snot dribbling into her rice -- in what is one of the film's most oddly gruelling scenes. But it's equally content to hover calmly in a doorway, picking up the sound rather than the sight of Tami's ordeal. Such blind voyeurism that scarcely seems kinder than open exposure, given the victim's lifetime of unseen, untreated suffering.