If the Oscars are the gay Super Bowl, the Eurovision Song Contest is the gay Olympics. Every year, the multinational talent show draws huge audiences in Europe and the Middle East, and its camp sensibilities ensure a devoted LGBT following. After all, this is the show that gave us ABBA and Conchita Wurst and for which Celine Dion once competed on Switzerland’s behalf, for some reason. In Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox’s new feature, Cupcakes, characters prepare a competition that, while technically called “UniverSong,” is clearly meant to represent Eurovision.
Screening at the JCC as a co-presentation between Kulanu Toronto and Inside Out, Cupcakes tells the story of a group of friends in Tel Aviv who record themselves singing an impromptu song and are surprised to find themselves groomed as pop stars and Israel’s representation at the UniverSong Contest in Paris. Full of bright colours, gentle satire and an obvious affection for Eurovision, it’s a fun, frothy confection of a film. For Toronto Jewish Film Society manager Esther Arbeid, programming the film was a no-brainer. “It’s made by one of Israel’s most celebrated directors,” Arbeid says. “It’s reflective of Israel’s diversity.”
If you’ve caught Fox’s previous films, The Bubble or Yossi, at Inside Out, you’ll know he doesn’t shy away from queer content, and Cupcakes has no shortage of it. The instigator for much of the action is Ofer, a handsome young schoolteacher with a penchant for lip-synching to Captain & Tennille in full drag in front of his students. Ofer’s the one who secretly sends the video to UniverSong, much to the initial chagrin of both his friends and his boyfriend, a closeted celebrity hummus spokesman. And the primary songwriter within the group is Efrat, a lesbian alt rocker who worries the competition might tarnish her indie cred.
With its colourful mise en scène and quirky sense of humour, many critics have compared Cupcakes to the early work of Pedro Almodóvar — a comparison Arbeid thinks is apt. “Cupcakes has a striking aesthetic, a wonderfully rich rainbow-themed colour scheme,” she says. “Also, the strong role of the matron in the film — Anat, who unwillingly brings the community together — reminds me of some of those amazing, strong Almodóvar matrons and other LGBTQ characters.”
While North American viewers are familiar with the Idol and Got Talent–style singing competition shows, Cupcakes helps demonstrate how much Eurovision is on a completely different level. “I had no idea it was that important,” Arbeid says. “Cupcakes captures the importance of the contest to Europeans, and Israelis, as the very focus of the community. It is at the centre of the film and the main characters’ lives.”
While Cupcakes embraces the campiness of the competition, it also embraces its ability to bring disparate groups together. “It’s a necessity,” Arbeid says. “There’s this great need to commune this way. Everyone comes together to sing and dance.”