SYNONYMS (Synonymes). Country: France, Israel, Germany. Director: Nadav Lapid. Screenwriter: Nadav Lapid. Cast: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Yehuda Almagor. Language: French, Hebrew, English. Runtime: 122 minutes. A New York Film Festival Main Slate. Release Date: October 25, 2019 at the Quad Cinema in NYC.
Mostly Indies rating: A
It seems that every year there is that one movie that manages to somehow polarize people and emit hisses and boos from the audience. I’ve now seen not one but two of them, the first being Albert Serra’s Liberte (last night at the Walter Reade) and Nadav Lapid’s film Synonyms at the Alice Tully. Mind you, I didn’t think that this film would prompt such a reaction from the audience once credits rolled — I’ve seen other films that have garnered even more intense reactions, like 2016’s Elle and Raw, or earlier this year when I saw Midsommar, which despite gleaning glowing reviews from critics and Yours Truly, did not exactly find itself loved by the crowd I sat with on preview night that giggled and cackled in scenes that well… you know.
Synonyms is a difficult film to digest, It will polarize moviegoers who will either understand its meaning or feel completely repelled by the anti-hero’s sheer stubbornness and negation of self which near the end reaches a level of almost hysterical blindness. I almost don’t even want to give it a “rating” per se because I fear that in doing so I am somehow being unfair to the story itself, which is just as important and poignant as the tragic story of Edmund in Roberto Rosselini’s Germany Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero). How can I judge a director who is attempting to retell is own life experience into a two hour movie? It would be rather lofty of me to say that perhaps this was a misfire, that I liked The Kindergarten Teacher better, that perhaps some closure at the end would have made more sense, and on, and on, amen.
When we begin the film, we see Yoav (Tom Mercier) from behind, through the lens of a camera that follows him urgently as he makes his way across a busy Parisian street and into the empty apartment where he is squatting. Soon later, he is naked, emerging from the sleeping bag he uses, and going into the shower to take a bath. The second he is done and ventures back out he realizes someone somehow snuck into his apartment and stole all of his items, leaving him basically destitute. Yoav frantically runs out of his place, going from door to door, pleading, screaming for help. No one comes out, He almost–almost!–ventures out into the street but instinct kicks in, and he goes back to his place, into the tub, into the cold water, and seemingly, decides to let fate take care of him.
It is here when two neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louuise Chevillotte) emerge from their places to provide succor. [Why they didn’t open the door earlier remains a mystery, but then, the final shot somehow will repeat the same indifference to the cries of help from neighbors if this might be an inconvenience.] The first thing that Emile notices is that Yoav is circumcized (which is one of the several comedic observations that happen throughout the film). They debate taking Yoav to the hospital but he regains consciousness, and Emile in an act of kindness (laced with a transparent homoeroticism) donates him some of his clothes and also gives him some Euros to survive on.
In a way, Yoav becomes “born again”. He recounts to Emile, with whom he bonds with, his life in Israel, a country Yoav describes using some choice words, not one of them good. Emile, skeptical, refuses to believe a country could be that bad, but Emile is your stereotypical entitled young man with a trust fund living in the city, pursuing his dreams. Yoav, on the other hand, is a damaged soul, one that was once molded by the Israeli military and who left in search ion a better life.
The irony of his appearance in Paris can’t be denied: in a time when there has been a rise in anti-Semitism in France, Yoav has arrived there ostensibly to erase any trace of his former life in Israel, obsessively learning French from a Larousse he carries with him at all times, Strangely, he works for Israeli Embassy, where he makes the acquaintance of some Israeli guys who seem to behave as if they belonged to some fight club. These acquaintances, who only appear during the middle portion of the movie, serve only to paint a clear picture of anti-Semitism; in one scene, while Yoav observes, one of his friends heckles passengers while humming the Israeli national anthem and proclaiming “I’m Jewish.” It’s an uncomfortable sight, for both the passengers and the Israelis who Yoav is acquainted to, because it is a sad reality that the immigrant is always seen as “the other”, “the invader”, and someone to basically, ignore at all costs, perpetuating the cycle of us versus them.
It’s in the final act when Synonyms starts to reveal the impasse between cultures, and cultural alienation. Yoav has begun, it seems, to date Caroline (complete with Emile’s blessing, which again, seems to be happening with some unspoken, ulterior motives). Caroline states at one point, “When I saw you naked in the bathtub I knew we’d end up together,” which makes me believe she does not see Yoav as a person she’d like to be with but a fetishized version of a man. Her motives to approach and resolve why Yoav found himself in the predicament at the start of the film seems to cement the fact that she does not and will not get to know him. Yoav, sadly, is already too damaged and too “macho” a character to fully explore his own self. He almost gives into Emile early on, but think that too would have ended badly.
Adding to the mix is that Yoav has found work on the side as a model, which in this case is synonymous with some shady work for a pervert with an iPad who subjects Yoav to undress, lie down, touch himself, and then reach orgasm but speaking in Hebrew. The scene is painful to watch because not only is Yoav being degraded, he’s also being forced to look into his own heritage and debase himself with it, which in a way, could be seen as the ultimate act of self-loathing and the denial of self. His cries in Hebrew of “What am I doing here?” which the videographer takes as ecstatic are particularly hard to watch, and then, to close it all, Yoav meets the videographer’s girlfriend, who happens to be from Palestine, and who flatly tells him she will not speak to him, point blank, because as we know… Israel and Palestine do not mix.
Synonyms does bring the past full circle with the appearance of Yoav’s father (Yehuda Almagar), who only wants to make sure that his son is well. However, by now, it has become clear that while Hoav is taking classes to become “assimilated” into French society, his own identity has become blurred. Nadav Lapid brings this disassociation to a painful head when Yoav basically loses it when attending Caroline’s concert, and now finds himself painfully locked out of his own apartment, That Lapid ends his movie in this way speaks volumes to the message he wants to convey. More often than not, those who emigrate to other nations and don’t conform to that nation’s expectation usually find themselves shut out, pariahs, trying desperately to fit in while being rejected just the same.
Tom Mercier gives an electric performance as Yoav, a man who is obsessively tries to blend in with a society that does not accept him (or at one point, sees him as a curiosity, when he ventures into a club to play Techotronic’s 1988 hit Pump Up the Jam). His mannerisms and body language suggest someone lost but who is all reflexes, closed off, suffering in silence, The rest of the cast seem to be a bit stale, perhaps a bit predictable version of entitled individuals who for reasons tilting towards curiosity and fetichism help an immigrant out, but don’t or can’t provide any real support. As I said earlier, this is a very difficult film that presents a harsh reality for anyone not fitting the norm and should be watched right up to its exclamation point ending.