‘Synonyms’: Supremely Aggravating, at Times Astonishing
Maddening, strident, febrile, and brimming with anguish, Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms is a visceral identity crisis at 24 frames per second. This portrait of a young Israeli man fleeing his militaristic country for the erudite, lightly louche City of Light is so startling in its emotional lacerations that the film nabbed the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s less a narrative than an episodic collection of frustrating, at times astonishing, glimpses into a stressed heart. Synonyms is supremely aggravating to watch. But as a conversation piece, expect a fertile mulch.
SYNONYMS ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Nadav Lapid
Written by: Nadav Lapid, Haim Lapid
Starring: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Uria Hayik, Olivier Loustau
Running time: 123 min
Sinewy loner Yoav (Tom Mercier), toting a backpack, arrives in a wintery Paris and makes his way to a grandiose but empty apartment in a chic arrondissement. After a night on its barren floor, Yoav shakes off his sleeping bag, showers, and emerges from the bathroom to realize that someone has burgled his few possessions. Naked, freezing, pounding on unresponsive doors up and down the stairwell, Yoav eventually goes back to the flat and, with a shiver, passes out in his bathtub.
Thankfully the downstairs neighbors Émile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) find him the next morning and inexplicably decide to clothe, feed, and befriend him. Émile even gives him a smartphone. They’re rich, clearly living together and presumably a couple. Disaffected lovers? Platonic roommates? Either will do. They’re indulgent and adrift, that’s what matters. Dilettante writer Émile constantly locks eyes with Yoav, charging their encounters with homoerotic longing, while concert oboist Caroline is the one who eventually ends up bedding him. Yoav is a project, an object of fascination, a source of curiosity and inspiration in their ennui-steeped lives.
And Yoav loves being with them because they’re his escape. He doesn’t want to shed his past, he wants to shred it. No more Hebrew, he insists, toting around his French dictionary like a talisman and reciting Gallic words and phrases with incantatory zeal. He insists on living in a peeling-wallpaper apartment and eating 2-euro-a-day meals. He wants to be buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Perplexingly, or perhaps because he has no other options, Yoav ends up working at the Israeli Embassy. One of the people he befriends is co-worker Yaron (Uria Hayik), an ultra-macho paranoiac who sees anti-Semitism everywhere, stridently hums the Israeli national anthem in people’s faces on the subway, and goes up to strangers just to announce, “I’m from Israel. A Jew!”
So goes Yoav’s struggle, aching to join his new French friends but constantly drawn back to his countrymen. Yoav gives writer’s-blocked Émile his traumatic war stories and painful family memories, but he also sits uneasily with life in a liberalized western country. He’s painfully aware of himself as a stereotype and a fetish object. In a moment of desperation he solicits “modeling work” and ends up in sleazy situations that treat his ethnicity and political history as a kink. He’s desperate to assimilate but wears a yellow overcoat everywhere. He’ll never blend in. And maybe he doesn’t want to.
In describing Israeli cinema, some have invoked the country’s popular Sabra. That cactus fruit is a symbol of national identity: prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside. That may be true, but Synonyms is more bittersweet, every moment of levity or tenderness undercut with an acidic aftertaste.
Lapid has said that Synonyms is semi-autobiographical, since he also came to Paris to speak only French and find a new identity by rejecting his homeland. And now Lapid is considered one of the major voices in Israeli cinema. The film is confessional, but it’s also an exorcism. It’s self-flagellation to an extreme. And, in its own way, it’s an embrace of the country and culture that tortures him, one that reframes his fidelity on his own terms.