Nadav Lapid’s two previous films have all had elements of autobiography and political critique, but neither framed those traits in a vehicle as deliriously unpredictable and enthrallingly impenetrable as “Synonyms.” Breathtaking in the way it careens from one scene to the next in a whirlwind of personal and political meaning all but impossible to grasp in full measure, the film is an excoriation of Israel’s militant machismo and a self-teasing parody of Parisian stereotypes, embodied by actor Tom Mercier in this astonishingly audacious debut. Based partly on Lapid’s own past as an Israeli who moved to Paris and refused to speak Hebrew, this uncategorizable cinematic trip will polarize critics and audiences alike, with some reading it as indulgent, disjointed excess and others admiring the sheer fearlessness of it all.
Among those most likely to be scandalized, the nationalists controlling Israel’s Ministry of Culture may be surprised to discover that a movie they helped fund is so clearly taking a Kalashnikov to the nation’s military culture and its carefully nurtured persecution complex. Given the body’s penchant for propagandizing against anything they deem anti-Israeli (their campaign against “Foxtrot” is a prime example), it’s likely “Synonyms” will need to cleverly leverage all the publicity, pro and con, to nab international distribution deals.
Typecasting Israelis and Parisians alike, the film demands multilevel readings, forcing viewers to question the nature of stereotypes and their validity outside parody. The world is a frenetic blur for Yoav (Mercier), just arrived in Paris and closely trailed by a camera that bounces with every arm-swing and footfall. Visual calm arrives once he enters a large empty apartment in an upscale neighborhood; he goes to sleep in a sleeping bag, but on waking, discovers that his backpack, and then his sleeping bag, are gone. His calls to the neighbors go unheeded, and naked and freezing, he passes out in the bathtub, where Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) find him.
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The pair are a caricature of a cute French couple: He’s philosophical and sexually ambiguous, writing a book he’ll likely never finish called “Night of Inertia.” She’s sensual, chic, and plays the oboe. They take Yoav into their apartment, where Emile gives him clothes, a cell phone and hundreds of euros; in exchange, Yoav gives him his lip-piercing ring before heading across the river and a shabby apartment where he’s now crashing. Though just learning French, Yoav’s words tumble out of his mouth in a flood of descriptive terms and cascades of synonyms, like a man pathologically driven to drown himself in this new culture.
“I moved to France to flee Israel,” he tells Emile, using words like “abominable,” “mean-spirited,” and “crude” to describe his homeland. He gets a job at the Israeli consulate but won’t speak Hebrew, making him the opposite of Yaron (Uri Hayik), an intelligence agent convinced that Europe is a hornet’s nest of anti-Semitism, and France its nucleus. Where Yoav wants to be French, Yaron antagonistically confronts everyone with his Israeli-ness, bellowing, “I’m Jewish!” at strangers and aggressively humming the Israeli national anthem in the faces of metro passengers. It’s the sort of hepped-up machismo Lapid mesmerizingly used in “Policeman,” here directed at a world constantly portrayed as the enemy of the Jewish State.
Insight into Yoav’s compulsive need to rid himself of his nationality comes in pieces, first through his obsession with the legendary Trojan figure of Hector, a warrior whose fate as the losing champion of his nation makes him, for Israelis unable to accept even the possibility of defeat, the ultimate failure of a man. Then there are glimpses of his life as a soldier in Israel, absurdist vignettes such as when he perforates a shooting-range dummy by discharging his machine gun to the rhythm of Pink Martini’s Frencher-than-French-fries song, “Je ne veux pas travailler.” Or the time he was awarded a silver medal and two fellow soldiers perform the sickly-sweet, insidiously catchy Eurovision Song Contest winner “Hallelujah La Olam.”
This juxtaposition of ersatz French and exaggerated Israeli sensibilities creates a tension that threatens to overwhelm (and potentially annoy) viewers not in sync with Lapid’s devil-may-care vision. Those willing to go along with the numerous twists and turns arrive toward the end with the revelatory comparison in a cultural assimilation class between the bloodthirsty lyrics of “La Marseillaise” and the insistent Zionism of the Israeli anthem “HaTikvah,” the former an antiquated battle cry full of gore, the latter a hopeful paean that skirts over the country’s toxic militarism. The final image, of Yoav slamming his body against a locked door that won’t budge, is ripe with significance, most powerfully, the inability to escape one’s heritage.
In an interview, Lapid says that Mercier’s audition was a shocking experience, and given what the actor does on screen, it’s not a surprise. Fearlessly tackling a role that requires a bewildering level of physicality, the newcomer quite literally throws himself into scenes of explosive energy. Even were he not seen naked, as he frequently is, Mercier has a body language and presence that treats clothes as a superfluity, and his ability to run with French, a language not his own, is deeply impressive (even though the script overdoes his occasional hesitations, especially on words far easier than some others he never trips over). Dolmaire, best known for Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days,” is the very model of the insouciant young Parisian, intellectual and nerdishly sexy; Chevillotte’s Caroline is suitably lovely yet her role is the least developed.
Shaï Goldman, who also shot “Policeman,” reflects Yoav’s swings with edgy camerawork, wildly unstable one moment, calm and voyeuristically observational in others, such as when a porn photographer has Yoav lie on the floor, legs elevated, making him penetrate himself while shouting in Hebrew. It’s the character’s breaking point: Objectified by the French he so wants to become, desperate to rid himself of the psychological damage he’s accumulated, Yoav is pressed between two cultures, embodying the eternally self-aware outsider.