Tag Archives: culture

Lost in Paris, Tied to the Past: Nadav Lapid’s SYNONYMS

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.

[Image from Haaretz]

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.

FRANCOFONIA

Francofonia:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

Marianne, and Napoleon Bonaparte as ghosts wandering the Louvre in Sokurov's new film Francofonia.
Marianne, and Napoleon Bonaparte as ghosts wandering the Louvre in Sokurov’s new film Francofonia.

Walking into the Film Forum to see Aleksandr Sokurov’s newest docudrama, Francofonia, I was hoping to see something in the style or at least similar to his 2002 classic Russian Ark, a movie that in one incredible shot narrated the evolution of Russian culture through the ages while inside the Hermitage, itself a spaceship trapped in its own time out of time. Perhaps I needed to be aware that art directors tend to produce oeuvres of wildly different nature. Had that been the case I perhaps would have been more persuaded to enjoy Francofonia more.

With its introduction of Tolstoy and Chekov, Sokurov narrates Francofonia as a guide and an omniscient character. He is the cameraman slowly zooming in and out of Parisian streets, over the Louvre, inside the Louvre, showing us the Great Masterpieces of art, describing some of their history and how they and the Louvre are inexorably tied together into a massive artistic heritage. Flittering in and out of the frames are two figures, the symbolic Marianne from the liberation of France, her only line being “Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!” while on the other hand, someone a little less selfless wanders the museum and points out only the works that feature him. That figure is none other than Napoleon, a ghost of his former self, still believing his greatness as something present, proclaiming, “C’est moi!” as a mantra.

Francofonia_5_-_Louis_Do_De_Lencquesaing__Benjamin_Utzerath-620x371

Two other narratives also come into play and tie into the greater picture that Francofonia attempts to present here — that of the preservation of art as a document of a culture (and there will be a subtle tie to the recent events in Syria, where its own works of art were destroyed by ISIS militants. The first narrative presents two men from two sides of World War II — Jean Jaujard and Fritz Mettenreich — who attempted to secure France’s artistic heritage before they could be forever pilfered by the Nazi’s as they threatened to advance into France. Lastly, there is Sokurov again, chatting with someone on Skype who seems to be with some cargo at sea in the middle of a storm. I’m going to make an educated guess that this is Sokurov’s symbolic way of narrating what would be the act of artistic theft and its consequences, but the sequence somehow feels as though it belongs in another picture and not this one. And of course, I would kill to see one made of both Jaujard and Mettenreich as they went through hoops to protect these timeless works of art.

In short, Francofonia is a strange documentary of sorts — not quite drama, not quite a recreation, not quite a history lesson, but rich with imagery if it still tends to feel somewhat flat around the edges. As a lesson on preserving culture from forces that would very much destroy it to finance their means, this is an important film to watch.