Israeli director Guilhad Emilio Schenker’s feature debut MADAM YANKELOVA’S FINE LITERATURE CLUB is quite the fascinating film. Set in some point in time in Israel, which I assume might be modern day but at the same time it’s hard to tell. There are no cell phones or computers, and someone sends a telegram, but all the men in the film dress in the modern styles of today.
The film starts with our protagonist, Sophie (Keren Mor, Foul Gesture) attempting to hitchhike with her older friend Hana (Hana Laslo, Plasticine). They’re having a hard time getting anyone to pick them up. Hana asks Sophie to lift up her skirt to show her leg. A man pulls over and wants to leave because he thinks they’re “old hags”. Hana promises that there are young girls where they’re going, so he agrees.
It is then that we are transported to the base of operations for MADAM YANKELOVA’S FINE LITERATURE CLUB. It has strictly female members in three castes. There are the Lordesses, who are the most respected. They are decked out in pearls and jewels constantly. There are then club members, who are trying their best to be Lordesses, and finally, there is the Housekeeping and Sanitation Department, where all the old ladies who didn’t become Lordesses go.
The literature club is not necessarily what you think it is. Yes, there are weekly meetings; yes there are readings by the leader of the organization, Madame Yankelova (Leah Koenig, Kadosh), but the same novella is read every time, The Lady and the Peddler by Yosef Shmuel Agnon. There is something a little off about this club, and Sophie is growing tired of the antics, even though she is one trophy away from becoming a Lordess. The trophies are given out after the end of each dinner, with the club member with the most attractive date winning the trophy. This may sound innocent enough, but I assure you it’s not.
One night Sophie’s friend Hana, who is part of the Department of Housekeeping and Sanitation, runs away and Madame Yankelova’s deputy Lordess Razia (Razia Israeli, Schindler’s List) is certain that Sophie had something to do with it. She has one of the young favorite club members, Lola (Ania Bukstein, Game of Thrones) move into the room next to Sophie’s to spy on her.
Both Sophie and Lola work at a library across the street from their residence, which are all owned by the club, and Lola has no trouble repeatedly finding dates to the Thursday night meetings. Sophie has an issue with that, until one day, she meets Josef (Yiftach Klein, Policeman), who seems very interested in her. She invites him to the club for the next meeting but eventually starts to regret the decision.
I will leave the creepier aspects of the club and the rest of the plot for you to discover by watching MADAM YANKELOVA’S FINE LITERATURE CLUB. It is extremely well written by director Guilhad Emilio Schenker and Yossi Meiri. The set design is incredible; showing how far removed from the real world the Fine Literature Club. The film could be described as an Israeli mystery comedy in the vein of Wes Anderson and Whit Stilman, but not as hyper whimsical or snobby (respectively) as either of those directors is wont to be.
MADAM YANKELOVA’S FINE LITERATURE CLUB screens at Fantastic Fest September 22nd at 11 am and will hopefully have a theatrical release in the near future.