Fantastic Fest is a divine destination for geeks who love genre movies. This week-long celebration of cinema giddily offers up an all-you-watch buffet of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy from around the world. Alongside such thrilling studio stunners as Halloween and Overlord, there are weird and wonderful gems like Israel's first-ever fantasy film, Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club, which became my personal favorite of the fest.
Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club is a campy and wild dark comedy that centers on the titular secret society of women who each week lures handsome young men to their doom. Once seated at the dinner table, shackles snap into place, securing the men for off-screen slaughter that will turn them into hot dogs, which will be sold at the local carnival. But cheeky cannibalism is just the crackling backdrop to an unlikely romance. Aging and tiring of the hunt, Sophie is at a breaking point with the club. She must either bring in her 100th "date" to be promoted to Lordess level, or else she will be demoted to the disrespected sanitation department. But things get complicated when the dashing Yosef wanders into her life.
Ahead of the Israeli hit's International Premiere at Fantastic Fest, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down to talk with Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club's co-writer/director Guilhad Emilio Schenker, who told us about the real-life inspirations for his literature-loving cannibal cult.
Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club offers a heady blend of melodrama, comedy and the macabre that makes it a wickedly good time. Schenker credits two formative filmmakers as its father. "The first of all is Pedro Almodovar," Schenker said. "He is a genius, he's also a man writing about women, and for me is a big, big, big inspiration. He also took the telenovela the soap operas to the edge of it. And I think I took it one step further to make it a little bit funnier."
"Another one is Tim Burton," he continued. "He is like my idol in many ways because he can tell bizarre stories, like Edward Scissorhands for example. One of the things with my the script is that they're woman killing men and making hot dogs out of them. It's unrealistic almost. So, I took from him the ability to tell complex stories that are almost unbelievable, but to still be able to connect to them. He is one of my biggest idols."
With film school and the 30-minute short Lavan under his belt, Schenker hungered to take on his first feature film. So perhaps it's fitting that a dinner with a friend provided its meaty inspiration. "I have a very good friend; her name is Sigal," Schenker began. "She's my muse. Once every like two or three weeks we get together to have dinner, and she always cooks for me. She always cooks the same thing: schnitzel with mashed potatoes."
Schenker explained that Sigal had been dating a "problematic" guy, who wasn't treating her as she deserved. "I was like 'So what's going on with the guy?'" he recalled. "Then she made a weird face, and she looked at my schnitzel — as I was eating the schnitzel — and she said 'Well, here he is.' And I was almost choked! I mean the schnitzel got stuck in my throat because I know her so well. I knew that it can be. It can be a joke but it can also be like a real thing that happened! I swallowed the schnitzel and I understood that this was my next feature film. I started to write a story about her, about her and her relationship with men with all the stories that she told me throughout the years. And then I built around her club, and that's basically what happened."
Schenker told me that in the first draft of the script, Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club did turn their male dinner guests into schnitzel, just as Sigal had joked. But he ultimately decided the phallic look of hot dogs made for a better visual gag, referencing the metaphorical emasculation that so many men fear might be the consequence of their relationships with women. "So, for me, the phallic was the right thing to do," Schenker shrugged.
So what does Sigal think of the movie inspired by her? " Oh, she loves it," Schenker beamed. "She loves it, she's all over, it's her story. I mean everything is about her!"
I remarked how I was delighted that his comedy carefully captures the female experience, from the societal pressure for women to look forever young and desirable to the rivalries that can go on within sororities, and the importance of the bonds of female friendship. Schenker credits more women in his life with making him understand the female experience, saying, "I grew up with women. I have two sisters. I have a mother and I have a grandmother that is very dominant in my life." Growing up in Argentina, he would watch soap operas and telenovelas with his sisters, mother, and grandma. And he feels those melodramatic stories deeply influenced him as well. "I mean they have zero camp," he said, explaining Madam Yankelova's roots. "But I grew up from them and took those elements. For me, when you take melodrama to the edge, it becomes a bit comic."
Schenker also noted Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club was a family affair, adding, "By the way, all of them acted in the film in some small parts. I mean my grandmother is Babushka, the head of the sanitation department. And she's 97." Asked if his grandmother was told the full premise of this dark comedy, Schenker chuckled, "Yeah, of course! By the way, she's Madam Yankelova, to be honest." He explained Sigal is more like Sophie, the film's hopeful romantic. "My grandmother is Madam Yankelova, I mean that's her," he continued. "She's 100 percent. If she was a professional actress then she would have played her (in the film)" He offered to show me her picture, noting, "She's my best friend, my grandmother."
Though Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club does not yet have a US release announced, it's been a huge hit in Israel, scoring big box office numbers and six Ophir Awards (Israel's version of the Oscars), two of which it won. Not bad for Schenker's directorial debut! So what's next for this fascinating filmmaker? A daring mother-daughter tale that'll pay greater tribute to his love of telenovelas and his youth in South America.
"I'm now finished writing my next feature film," he shared. "It's called Caracas. Caracas is the capital of Venezuela where I was born. It deals with the Supreme Court of Motherhood. A daughter is suing her mother, demanding her mother to commit suicide in order for (the daughter) to start living. It's like an imaginary court, the Supreme Court of Motherhood. She's suing her mother in this court."
Like Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club, Caracas will be a blend of melodrama and camp humor. Its story will switch from the court case "that it will all happen in a big womb," and flashbacks to the mother and daughter's life together. "They each tell their story," Schenker explained. "The daughter demands her mother to commit suicide, and the mother, she tries to defend herself and explain why she was a good mother (through the flashbacks)."
It sounds totally bonkers. We can't wait.