“SYNONYMS”— The Human Struggle to Assimilate


The Human Struggle to Assimilate

Amos Lassen

 Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms” looks at profoundly alienating experiences of moving abroad. Yoav (Tom Mercier) has just arrived from Israel to an empty Paris apartment when his backpack, clothes, and supplies vanish while he masturbates in the shower. Naked and yelling in a foreign accent, he bangs on his neighbors’ doors. Yoav knew where the key was hidden for the apartment, but he also does not know any of the neighbors who ignore his shouts.

Overnight, Yoav almost freezes to death in his tub in the apartment with no heat but is found in time by Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte). The couple feeds him, gives him clothes, and each take an intense interest in him. Emile is an aspiring writer, interested in Yoav’s stories from the Israeli army, and in his curious turns of phrases. Caroline is interested in Yoav after having seen him naked. Their rescuing him is the beginning of a passive-aggressive love triangle with a homoerotic subtext.

Yoav is a mystery, both to Emile and Caroline and to those watching the film. He claims to hate Israel and refuses to speak Hebrew with other Israelis that he meets in Paris, but it’s unclear precisely what happened to make him leave his homeland. At various times, “Yoav shows himself to be fastidious, unorganized, controlled, childlike, learned, naïve, capable, and easily overwhelmed.” He is inscrutable from moment to moment.

There is no progressing plot here. The attraction Emile and Caroline feel to Yoav, and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, come full circle, but only after we take a look at 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 attempts to provoke fights that he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to l immigrate. 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.

An inconsistency in style and pacing makes the film feel elusive and estranging. 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 unmotivated outbursts of eccentric behavior suggest a kind of madness. Perhaps he seems mad because he’s between identities, as an Israeli who’s no longer an Israeli but still not French. This is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another.

Having lived in Israel for many years, I totally understand Yoav’s disassociation with the country. While deciding to leave the country, one realizes all of the problems there and when actually leaving those issues become more acute and are difficult to speak about.

There’s a stream-of-consciousness approach to “Synonyms”, especially when we see Yoav walking through the streets of Paris muttering synonyms from the French dictionary he is currently hooked on in between admonishing himself not to look up. This feeling of being ‘in the moment’ with him never lets up for the entire film and  we experience his life as he sees it, with all its confusion and contradiction, comedy and caricature.

Yoav left Israel on a whim, following his army duty. He had the intention of starting from a blank slate  and it becomes blanker after a burglar enters the huge but empty place where he is showering shortly after his arrival, and runs away with all of his possessions.

Yoav falls into a hypothermic stupor, until being found the next day by the young couple who live in the same block. They are happy to build Yoav in their image, dressing him in Emile’s clothes, handing him a phone and fueling sexual feelings. The story follows Yoav’s progress and encounters but it all goes to feed the director’s ideas of identity and how it can be (de)constructed. The criticisms of this Israeli military are also particularly searing, with ideas of aggressive masculinity undercut by absurdity.

The film is held together by tensions— those between Yoav’s old, jettisoned identity – he flatly refuses to speak Hebrew and bad-mouths Israel whenever he can – and his newly acquired persona, as well as his pre-conceived ideas about the French and, in turn, Emile and Caroline’s innate beliefs about Israelis. The admonition of not looking up also fuels them, as Yoav is torn between the draw of the architecture of Paris and the need to simply walk. Mercier is like a force of nature as Yoav, moving between emotions like an angry captured wild animal. In the end, it’s the internal tensions that really twist to breaking point – his desire to lose an old identity may be strong, but it’s how to forge the new one without having it also shaped for by others that proves Yoav’s paradoxical plight.

The character of Yoav certainly seems to be a surrogate for the movie’s writer/director Lapid, an Israeli filmmaker who experienced an identity crisis in his younger years. Yoav is traumatized by a stint in the IDF and fed up with his country’s cruelty and hypocrisy—the movie’s title refers to all the French words Yoav learns to characterize his awful homeland. The movie begins and ends with a character banging on a door that’s permanently barred to him.

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