Review: The Women of the Horror-Comedy ‘Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club’ Treat Men as Disposable, and Can You Blame Them?
What is the proper ending for a fuckboi? The women in Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club (a huge hit in its native Israel, which is now receiving a limited release in the U.S.) have no patience for handsome men. They don’t have much patience for non-handsome men, either, but that’s because the misandry runs deep in this group. Oh, and the cannibalism. The women are also really into cannibalism.
The Israeli horror-comedy Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club imagines a world in which a cult of women have for decades lured men with their beauty, flirting with them and feigning interest in their lives, to then invite them to a book club and an accompanying dinner. The men think they’re going to get laid after suffering through a few hours of literary-themed talk; what they could never expect is that the women will instead capture them, kill them, and eat them. It’s a ritual they’ve practiced upon hundreds of men—maybe even thousands—and they’re not particularly regretful about it. It’s just what they do.
We’re introduced to the emotionless thinking of this whole “trap, murder, consume” rigmarole through Sophie (Keren Mor), a woman who has for years been loyal to the club. By day, she works as a librarian, and is well-known for her analysis of the works of novelist and Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon. By night, she roams around, pretending to be a hitchhiker or a damsel in distress, to con men into accompanying her to the literature club. She has delivered 98 men to the group, but those decades are beginning to show. She’s still a perfectly beautiful woman, but to be middle-aged in this community is to practically be dead.
If Sophie were to lure two more men into the club, she would reach an exalted higher level: She would be recognized as a Lordess. Already, her status in the club is higher than those in the Sanitation Department crew who must clean up the corpses and turn them into meat, but Sophie’s closest friends is one of those women, Hannah (Hana Laslo). But when Hannah disappears, seemingly abandoning the club—and leaving with their secrets!—Sophie is immediately mistrusted. And things get weirder when Sophie begins to develop feelings for a man, Yoseph (Yiftach Klein), who is researching Agnon and who asks for her help at the library. After so many years of leading unsuspecting men to their deaths, could Sophie really fall in love?
Director Guilhad Emilio Schenker and writers Yossi Meiri and Guilhad Emilio Schenker walk a line between coyness in their visual representation of this world and sincerity in their exploration of its characters. The film begins on a dark night, with a crow flying in a moonlit sky; a devastating thunderstorm and a flickering lightbulb later push two characters together; we see the men trapped in their chairs during literary club meetings and then sneak a peek into the kitchen, where they’ve been turned into hot dogs. The self-awareness of the film, and its humor in dealing with tropes about “old witches” and “old hags,” adds liveliness to an otherwise somewhat-predictable story. Sophie, unused to having guests, searches through her refrigerator, cupboards, and corners of her kitchen to find something to feed Yoseph; the scene works because of the rhythm of her failure. An opera singer in an evening gown belts out tunes as the women get ready to chow down on the men who hoped to sleep with them. The award each woman wins for bringing the most handsome man to the weekly literary club is a hunk of plastic shaped, literally, like a hunk, with bulging chest muscles and a recognizable six-pack. These women are cannibals, sure, but they want only the finest.
When the film keeps its focus tightly on the group, it works best; the dynamics between the Lordesses is clearly informed by years of rivalry and competition. A broader view, though, adds some shakiness to the film’s own logic. How has the disappearance of so many men gone unnoticed? Is there something supernatural about the group; why else join the cult? The filmmakers clearly want to make a point about how women pushed away from society would react with their own violence and clannishness, but the film is more successful when operating as a sort of fantasy or fairy tale than as a real-life parable.
Nevertheless, the dark humor of Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club maintains the film’s brisk pace, and Mor’s performance in particular is exceptional: She gives Sophie layers of sadness that hint not only at her own fear about getting older, but her realization that she has devoted so much of herself to a group that doesn’t really care for her. A stack of photographs, each one showing Sophie standing with a different man at the literary club, bring to mind that moment from Get Out when Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris realizes that Allison Williams’s Rose Armitage is not who she seems. But there’s less fear in that moment in Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, and more a sense of great loss. How the film manages to make that loneliness real while also subverting stereotypes about women, aging, and their relationships with superficial men is an enjoyable balancing act.
Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club opened in limited release around the U.S., including Los Angeles, on June 21, 2019.
Image sources (in order of posting): IMDb, IMDb