×

Film Review: ‘Synonyms’

Exceptional newcomer Tom Mercier plays an ex-Israeli soldier desperate to ditch his national identification who moves to Paris in Nadav Lapid's latest.

Director:
Nadav Lapid
With:
Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7016254/

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.

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.

Film Review: 'Synonyms'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 12, 2018. Running time: 123 MIN. (Original title: ‘Synonymes’)

Production: (France-Israel-Germany) An SBS Productions, Pie Films, Komplizen Film, Arte France Cinéma prod., with the participation of ARTE France, ARTW/WDR, CNC, German Federal Film Board. (Int'l sales: SBS Int'l, Paris.) Producers: Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt. Co-producers: Osnat Handelsman Keren, Talia Kleinhendler, Janine Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach, Maren Ade.

Crew: Director: Nadav Lapid. Screenplay: Lapid, Haïm Lapid. Camera (color, widescreen): Shaï Goldman. Editors: Era Lapid, François Gédigier, Neta Braun.

With: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Uri Hayik, Léa Drucker. (French, Hebrew, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Easy Lessons Dorottya Zurbo Documentary

    European Film Promotion Hits Hot Docs Festival With Changing Face of Europe Pic Selection

    For the second edition of the Changing Face of Europe, a collaboration between the Hot Docs film festival (April 25-May 5) and European Film Promotion (EFP), 10 European documentaries will offer Toronto audiences a provocative and kaleidoscopic portrait of the cultural forces shaping the continent today. The program is a study in both intimate, personal [...]

  • Gabrielle Union Marketing Summit

    Listen: How Gabrielle Union Bet on Herself and Changed Her Brand

    Actress Gabrielle Union said she was nearly 17 years past the expiration date of her mass appeal when she got the brand partnership of her dreams. “They tell you that after 26, ‘Honey, hang it up,'” Union said on the latest episode of the Variety podcast “Strictly Business.” The episode was recorded during a keynote [...]

  • HanWay Films Boards Takashi Miike’s ‘First

    HanWay Films Boards Takashi Miike’s Cannes-Bound ‘First Love’

    HanWay Films has boarded sales on Takashi Miike’s “First Love,” which has been selected for Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. HanWay has worldwide rights excluding Asia. Jeremy Thomas’ Recorded Picture Company is re-teaming with Miike on the picture, which will have its world premiere in Cannes. The film marks the fourth collaboration between the prolific Japanese [...]

  • Newport Film Festival Honorees 2019

    Newport Beach Film Festival Honors Five Artists, Kicks Off With Sundance Hit 'Luce'

    The Newport Beach Film Festival, which kicks off April 24 and continues through April 27, will honor five talented artists who will be on hand to accept their awards. The event kicks off opening night with the West Coast premiere of Sundance indie hit “Luce,” a provocative racial drama from director Julius Onah starring Naomi [...]

  • Newport Beach Film Festival Illustration

    Newport Beach Film Festival Gathers a Global Following

    Now celebrating a landmark 20th year, the Newport Beach Film Festival, which runs April 25-May 2, has become a major fixture on the crowded festival circuit and is increasingly recognized internationally as one of the leading lifestyle film fests in the U.S. This year it will spotlight more than 350 films from some 55 countries, [...]

  • Photographer: Guy Godfree. In shot: Zoey

    Tribeca Film Festival: 9 Movies to Watch

    The Tribeca Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday with a slate of movies from up-and-coming filmmakers and established directors that tackle hot-button issues such as gun violence, homophobia, and gender discrimination. The annual celebration of film was originally founded by Robert De Niro and producer Jane Rosenthal to encourage people to return to a corner [...]

  • Tribeca Film Festival'Venus in Fur' film

    Tribeca Film Festival: 10 Music Docs We’re Excited to See

    While the Tribeca Film Festival usually has strong music entries, this year has such a bounty that narrowing our top picks down to 10 was a challenge. This year’s offerings range from documentaries on the legendary Apollo Theater, the Wu-Tang Clan and Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman to music-adjacent films like Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” (about [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content