Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Song of Songs (2005)

Courtesy of Soda Pictures Ltd

Main image of Song of Songs (2005)
DV, colour, 81 mins
Directed byJosh Appignanesi
Production CompanyWild Horses Film Company
ProducerGayle Griffiths
Written byJosh Appignanesi, Jay Basu
PhotographyNanu Segal
MusicJohn Roome

Cast: Natalie Press (Ruth Cohen); Joel Chalfen (David Cohen); Julia Swift (Sarah Cohen); Leon Lissek (Rabbi Berg); Amber Agar (Tanya)

Show full cast and credits

When Ruth returns home to care for her dying, devoutly religious mother, she becomes increasingly fascinated by her estranged brother David, whose interpretations of the Old Testament are both transgressive and strangely thrilling...

Show full synopsis

Shot on digital video on a tiny budget, Josh Appignanesi's feature debut is an ambitious and intelligent exploration of a subject never previously encountered in British cinema: the lives and attitudes of members of north London's Orthodox Jewish community.

At its heart is a triangular family drama: Sarah Cohen (Julia Swift) is dying, and being cared for by her daughter Ruth (Natalie Press), recently returned from Israel. Sarah wants to see the family reunited, and asks Ruth to find her estranged brother David (Joel Chalfen), something Ruth undertakes with extreme trepidation. At first, this hesitancy seems connected with David's absolute refusal to have anything to do with his mother, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that he and Ruth have unfinished business in terms of their own personal relationship with each other.

Precisely what that is is left deliberately ambiguous, though Appignanesi throws in heavy hints through regular quotations from the Old Testament, in one key scene interweaving lines from the Song of Songs (the Bible's most overtly erotic passage) with stern admonitions about physical and moral cleanliness. Heavily influenced by William Blake (whose virtues he expounds in an early scene), David is an aggressive free-thinker, believing that no-one has the right to restrain desire, though this desire can take many forms - as he wryly observes when reading Leviticus, sometimes the punishments sound more interesting than the rewards.

Ruth, more bound by tradition (she is fascinated by the wigs worn by Orthodox Jewish women when they marry), initially seems more conservative, but David is visibly disturbed by her apparent willingness not only to go along with his ideas but to become the dominant partner. Knowing that he eavesdrops on her conversations with Sarah, she deliberately peppers them with references to him in order to test his reaction. For all his elaborate theories, David is ultimately afraid of women - not just their sexuality but also more general forms of female manipulation, as shown by his final breakdown when Sarah reveals a long-hidden secret about his father.

Scripted by Appignanesi and novelist Jay Basu, Song of Songs ultimately has more ideas than it knows what to do with, and non-Jewish audiences are likely to miss many of the film's subtler allusions (not least the recurring, almost fetishistic obsession with hair). But it's staged and shot with a confidence belying its creators' inexperience, and bodes very well for Appignanesi's future.

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The homecoming (2:43)
2. Narcissistic transgression (4:35)
3. The Song of Songs (2:18)
4. A mother's advice (2:22)
Production stills
Close My Eyes (1991)
Paradise Grove (2002)
Press, Natalie (1980-)