An Israeli in Paris
Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms” is a bold, unsubtle allegory that unsettles the audience’s understandings aggressively. He does the same with the political binaries of his young expat protagonist who has been made over in a supposedly cosmopolitan Europe. The film is built around a state of confusion and every character and every narrative development has a metaphorical function. These elements show a rebuke of Israel. “Synonyms” is filled with chutzpah backed up with the necessary aesthetic and philosophical rigor and eschewing black-and-white polemics to reach a nuanced, probing and productively confrontational engagement with the film’s contentious theme. Relax, this is a film that will both entertain and make us think. with its contentious central thematic.
Many things in the film do not add up and this is an essential part of Lapid’s anti-schematic strategy. He introduces fundamental uncertainty in the first scenes. Yoav (Tom Mercier), an Israeli who recently completed his military service, arrives in Paris and lets himself into a stunning, gigantic and completely empty apartment with a key that was left under the doormat. As he takes a shower, his belongings are stolen. Naked and freezing (it is winter), he tries and fails to get help from the neighbors.
The next morning, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevilotte), a young couple who live upstairs, find him hypothermic in the bathtub. They take him back to their apartment, warm him up and when he comes to, give him an iPhone, expensive clothes and cash. Now with this y in a plastic bag, Yoav then leaves to move into another empty apartment, this one is tiny and dilapidated, located on “the other bank”. Emile is an aspiring writer, interested in Yoav’s bounty of stories from the Israeli army, and in his curious turns of phrases. Caroline is interested in Yoav for reasons that have more overtly to do with having seen him naked. Their rescue of him is the beginning of a passive-aggressive love triangle with a homoerotic subtext.
Yoav doesn’t know anyone in Paris, so how does he have access to these two apartments, which are such conspicuous opposites? Who would want to steal a ratty backpack and a sleeping bag? Why are Emile and Caroline so generous with a complete stranger they meet in suspect circumstances?
We never get answers to these questions and the film never dispels, nor confirms, the suspicion that Yoav might have died in the bathtub and that the rest of the film is a fantasy. What’s clear is that his naked and dispossessed awakening represents a rebirth that invites an allegorical reading of everything that follows, and it is amazing that the film does not die under its own weight.
Early on, Yoav buys himself a French dictionary and starts learning new words, reciting synonyms as he walks around Paris. The first one we hear is an attack against his homeland. His face framed in a tight close-up, he speaks straight into the camera: “Israel is nasty, obscene, odious, sordid, abominable…” The list goes on for a while. Whereas Yoav wants a complete break with his past and refuses to ever speak Hebrew again, another Israeli character, Yoron, wields his ethnicity with aggressive pride, getting in the face of strangers at bars or on the subway and shouting that he is Jewish, daring them to attack him and prove themselves to be anti-Semites.
Through such contrasts, Lapid presents differences in Israeli identity. By setting “Synonyms” outside of Israel, Lapid introduces an explicit international dimension elaborating his deceptively dialectical approach. Yoav imagines France as a utopia, whose core egalitarian values of liberty, equality and fraternity as well as strict separation of church and state are the opposite of Israel’s. At the same time, Emile and Camille personify his aspired-to French ideals: beautiful, rich, cultured, romantic, promiscuous.
Yoav conceives of everything in binary terms and when his experience fails to neatly corroborate these dichotomies, it brings about a breakdown. Late in the film, he attends an integration course and the teacher gets him to sing the Marseillaise. Taken aback by the militaristic and xenophobic content of the lyrics, Yoav sings each successive verse with increasing ferocity, giving expression to the violent extent of his disillusionment. As the reality checks accumulate and his fairy tale becomes scarred by exploitation and intolerance, Yoav is forced to confront the impracticability of escape as a solution to conflict, be it internal or external.
This film is feature is an incendiary portrait of psychological trauma of a man on the run from himself. It also works as a migrant’s story and follows an exiled Israeli soldier who comes to Paris where he is determined to forget the past and forge a new future. There’s nothing new about the expat-in-Paris plot line but Lapid brings a refreshing physical energy to his drama making it absurdist and at times exasperating, but ultimately entertaining and watchable, even though the plot is thin and too long.
Tom Mercier exudes energy that propels the film forward though its highs and lows. Some scenes are engaging, others ridiculous and banal. Mercier’s physical presence alone is a force to be reckoned with— he is muscled and lean and he conveys violent unrest and also a vulnerability, best in the scenes when he takes his clothes off, as he often does. In one burst of action, he jumps up on a table and does a striptease and in another he goes through a humiliating nude photo shoot for an off-the-wall artist, who pays him cash.
Yoav is a mystery, both to Emile and Caroline and to the film’s audience. He professes his hatred of Israel and refuses to speak Hebrew with other Israelis he meets in Paris, but it’s unclear precisely what happened to make him leave Israel aside from his being after the army. At various times, Yoav shows himself to be fastidious, unorganized, controlled, childlike, learned, naïve, capable, and easily overwhelmed. He is more or less inscrutable from moment to moment.
The attraction Emile and Caroline feel to Yoav, and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a roundabout route through Yoav’s brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy (which ends when he spontaneously declares “no borders” and lets everyone in line enter); his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights so that he can claim them as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. The audience feels that something is missing; we flash back to some of Yoav’s experiences in the army, but the events that drove him away are always just outside of the bounds of the scene. There is an inconsistency in style and pacing that makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that’s probably the point. One theme of Lapid’s film is the irrational sickness that’s nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. His seemingly unmotivated outbursts of eccentric behavior suggest a kind of madness. But perhaps he seems mad because he’s between identities, an Israeli who’s no longer an Israeli, and still only has “weird French”. “Synonyms” is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another.