For audiences looking to see a French movie, 2005’s “La Petite JÃ©rusalem,” showing again next week at Makor in NYC, provides some of the staples. Good-looking naked women appear more often than they would in the American equivalent. And Laura, the film’s young and beautiful main character, is in many ways a modern Madame Bovary, a woman out of the 19th century French provinces who wants nothing more than adventure and Paris, but is held down by tradition and patriarchy, with local love affairs as her only outlet for freedom.
The difference between the world of Laura’s family and that of 19th century Catholic France is that, aside from language, Laura’s family has no particular ties to their country of residence. The setting could be anywhere– there’s nothing specifically French in this film, aside from the language, the public transportation, and, perhaps, the level of anti-Semitic violence. The Muslim and Jewish communities in Sancerre, as depicted in this movie, clearly have more in common with each other than with the “French-hyphen-French,” either in Paris or elsewhere. Theirs is a France without haute couture, fruits de mer, or guilt-free extramarital sex. As shocking as it is that Laura would have a flirtation and brief affair with “the boy from the mosque,” it would be unthinkable for her to come home with playboy Jean-Jacques, sweater tied around his shoulders just so.
So not only do Laura and her family have to contend with family crises and the restraints of a traditional lifestyle–which are at least offset by religious faith and community support–but they are, unlike the suffering-yet-French-Catholic Bovaries, or the Jewish-but-only-in-origin Swanns, not all that comfortable in France. Is “La Petite Jerusalem” a French movie or a Jewish one that happens to be set in France? Both, but it’s also about the failure of the French-Jewish fused identity. French Jews, as such, exist only briefly in this movie, as a community just arrived from North Africa, and on its way either to complete assimilation or to Israel.
That the action takes place in the 21st century ultimately expands the family’s options– Laura is able to move to Paris on her own and is neither married off in her own community nor forced to convert to Islam and remain with her first lover, while her family is able to move to Israel. But the message is that you have to pick Judaism or Frenchness. Reform Judaism isn’t so big in France, and the implication at the end of the movie is that Laura’s moving to Paris to become French and to leave her Jewish life behind.
At the end of the movie, when you see all the boxes, labeled in French, Laura’s family packed up for their move to Israel, it’s unclear whether this is supposed to be an even slightly uplifting ending. While the family idealizes their future life in Israel, they also move because, as Laura’s brother-in-law points out, it can’t be worse there than in Sancerre. This is a Zionist message–the future of the Jews is in Israel–but a bittersweet one at best.