Synonyms and its protagonist alike dare to criticize Israel, which is no easy feat inside the country or out — our own Congress is currently considering a bill that would prohibit businesses from boycotting goods made in Israel.
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Synonyms are words that are similar, or have a related meaning, to another word. Two decades and three films later, the director has revisited that period of his life with the feature Synonyms , a fictionalized and confrontational parable about an ex-Israel Defense Force solider named Yoav (Tom Mercier) who flees to Paris and stops speaking Hebrew in an attempt to escape his own culture. The movie won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, before playing at TIFF and the New York Film Festival. It opens in cinemas on Friday (November 1).
US website Indie wire called the movie a wilfully confrontational satire that pugnaciously mocks his own Israeli identity; the culture of France, where Lapid lived at the start of this century; and assorted conventions and decorums of art cinema”.
Alas, this is not a tale of abundant semantic bewilderment. Yoav (first-time actor Tom Mercier) already speaks pretty flawless French; he buys the book merely to enlarge his vocabulary, and takes to stalking the streets muttering poecilonyms (almost-but-not-quite synonyms) and figures of speech.
In Paris, things do not exactly get off to a good start for Yoav. He knocks on the door of a flat, only to discover the place is empty and, while he is taking a bath there, his things are stolen. Yet this young Israeli had arrived with such great expectations. He is determined to get rid of his nationality as quickly as possible. For him, being Israeli is like a tumour that has to be surgically removed. Becoming French, on the other hand, would quite simply mean his salvation. In order to erase his origins, Yoav first tries to replace his language. From now on, he will not utter a single word of Hebrew. The dictionary becomes his constant companion. The necessary visits to the Israeli embassy annoy him; he finds his compatriots to be a total burden. But the naturalisation test also has its pitfalls. And the young French couple whom he befriends has some rather strange ideas about how to help him.
The film arrives in cinemas in the wake of the recent Israeli election in which major parties across the political spectrum campaigned on virtually indistinguishable” promises to further entrench military rule over the Palestinians. The election result suggests an inextricably deep-seated status quo. So although Lapid based Synonyms on his own experiences from years ago, the film’s portrait of a man who refuses to deal with his reality rather than confront it feels as timely as ever.
Synonyms was co-produced by SBS Productions with Pie Films (Israel), Komplizen Film (Germany) and Arte France Cinéma SBS Distribution will be releasing the film in French theatres on 27 March. SBS International is handling the film’s international sales.
Seemingly incapable of filming a visually uninteresting scene, Navid Lapid continues to refine his highly muscular compositional sense, which can turn even the most mundane encounter into a moment fraught with energy and tension. Like Yoav, his camera is constantly on the move, shadowing his subject as he careens through Paris with seemingly little motivation other than an innate impulse to outrun his past. Political but never didactic, the film picks at a decidedly modern existential condition that, as Yoav’s parable-like journey suggests, may only lead to more unanswered questions.
But taken as a whole, the whole ‘kosher Candide’ routine surrounding not-quite-innocent-abroad Yoav proves repetitive and wearing. The satire belongs in the same self-mocking vein of Israeli satire as David Grossman’s acclaimed recent novel A Horse Walks Into a Bar, and also, in a timely way, addresses the contemporary paradox of an Israeli escaping to France at a time when so many French Jews are making the opposite journey. But there’s often a wearying degree of sometimes gratuitous-seeming stylistic play – Lapid has a thing for wild whip pans – and the French couple that Yoav bonds with, emotionally and sexually, are more than a little stereotyped. Emile is an effete litterateur working on an oeuvre called Nights of Inertia, Caroline an arty sexpot.
The festival’s jury grand prize award was won by French director Francois Ozon’s By the Grace of God,” a movie about the long-term effects of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The last Israeli to win a prize at the festival was filmmaker Joseph Cedar, who in 2007 won the Silver Bear award for Best Director.
The neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), find Yoav the next morning and carry him back to their apartment in a pose that mimics that of Christ in the Pietà. Emile lends Yoav some clothes (which fit miraculously, despite a substantial difference in height and build), including a ridiculous yellow overcoat. Emile can barely hide his infatuation with the peculiar and strapping foreigner, who has come to France with no intention of returning to Israel, and refuses to speak any language except French (which he is learning with the help of a dictionary), even around his fellow Israelis. But Emile and Caroline are wannabes, too. They are rich kids living as artists: she as a part-time classical musician, and he as an aspiring novelist, struggling to finish a turgid manuscript called Nights Of Inertia.
His rage at the world increasing, Yoav ends up only swapping one violent nationalist ideology for another; in one of the film’s best scenes, Lapid extracts a productive discomfort from all those uncomfortable lyrics in La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, about animals” and impure blood.” As our world is inflicted by intensifying nationalism, Synonyms is an especially relevant film — the fault is not just with Israel or France, but with the entire concept of nationhood, a source of shared identity but also an excuse to exclude, discriminate and persecute.
Yoav (Tom Mercier), the hero of the Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid’s quizzical new film Synonyms, is not the first person to come to Paris in search of rebirth only to find disappointment. But there he is, on his first night in the city, in an unheated and unfurnished apartment on the Left Bank, minding his own business, cranking one off in the bathtub, when someone sneaks in and steals his backpack, his sleeping bag, and his clothes. (The circumstances of the theft are as mysterious as those of Yoav’s arrival.) Naked, he runs up and down the grandiose staircase of the building, banging on the doors for help, but no one answers. So he goes back to the apartment, climbs into the tub, and passes out in the cold water.
Over the course of the film, Yoav attempts to start a brand new life, while at the same time permanently shutting the door on the life he left behind, including his former life in Israel and his dysfunctional family. Starting life over from scratch is not easy. Yoav has to find a job, which can be difficult for an ex-pat from anywhere. He then must find new social circles to hang with. His close friendship with Emile and Caroline starts off great but becomes overly complicated over time.
His latest movie is called Synonyms,” in part because Yoav obsessively carries a pocket-sized French dictionary in order to help himself abandon the Hebrew language, and in part because this is the story of someone who substitutes one citizenship for another only to find that they all basically mean the same thing (after listening to Yoav describe Israel with a dozen terrible adjectives, Emile cooly replies that No country can be all of those things at once”).
The movie, which delves into the deep ambivalence of the young Yoav about both his birth country Israel and adopted homeland of France, divided critics. Nadav Lapid’s film feels constantly like it’s not telling the audience something it needs to know.
Yoav’s old life begins to creep back in, undermining his Fracophile dream of freedom. He gets a security job at the Israeli Consulate, where he’s instructed to watch out for people with Arab sounding names and dark skin. His belligerent friend, Yaron, played to perfection by Uria Hayik, is determined to avenge acts of antisemitism at the hands of the French, going so far as to describe how he would fight off an attack at a Jewish supermarket.
So begins a sui generis work of tormented genius — a strange and singular misadventure about the violence of trying to replace one identity with another. Co-produced by Toni Erdmann” director Maren Ade, and loosely based on Lapid’s own experience as a young man who fled to Paris because he believed that he was born in the Middle East by mistake, the filmmaker’s disorienting third feature continues his forensic, career-long fascination with the impossible knot that ties a person to their country — specifically, his country — like the bust on the bow of a sinking ship.
Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival, Synonyms is an astonishingly original and sometimes tragicomic slap on the structures of Middle Eastern and Western identity. Israeli director Nadav Lapid doesn’t show mercy even to himself; he turns autobiographical elements into politically charged art of moments and encounters, rather than a solid narrative.
Overnight, Yoav almost freezes to death in his tub, but is found in time by two young bourgies, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte). The couple feeds him, gives him clothes, and each take an intense interest in the fit, enigmatic young man. 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 that recalls Jules and Jim , but with the homoerotic subtext brought much closer to the surface.
At moments, Synonyms undeniably shows stylistic brio – a quiet dancefloor suddenly explodes with life to ‘Pump Up the Jam’ – or comic invention, as in an alarmingly spontaneous bout of wrestling between Yoav’s two tough guy friends. There’s also an enjoyably goofy flashback to Yoav’s life in Israel and an improbably showbizzy army ceremony.
The actor’s strong resemblance to the young Jean-Paul Belmondo is more to the point, actually, as Synonyms” unfolds with the breezy, improvisational bite of a lost New Wave film. Writer-director Lapid (The Kindergarten Teacher”) is based in Tel Aviv but he lived in Paris after his own stint in the Israeli army, and Synonyms” has a rueful ache for connection and completion that feels intensely personal. At the same time, the movie is often very funny and often at Yoav’s expense; that Lapid co-wrote the screenplay with his father, the writer and social psychologist Haim Lapid, suggests he’s getting distance on a fraught period in his life while mending some long-broken fences.
Winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Synonyms is 44 year-old Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s most personal and provocative film to date. No stranger to subjects of thorny sociopolitical consequence—his first two features, Policeman (2011) and The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), center, respectively on a member of a counter terrorist organization and a school teacher gone to dangerous lengths to protect a budding poet—Lapid boldly casts a critical eye on contemporary Israeli culture. Set in early aughts Paris, Synonyms finds the director expanding his purview through a story based partly on his own experiences as an ex-soldier living in self-imposed exile in France.
They find him unconscious in a large bathtub, his head tilted back. In contrast to Yoav’s frenetic introduction, this image is ordered and precisely framed, and it announces a visual contrast that Lapid maintains as he toggles between distancing tableaus and jaggedly expressionistic movement. The bathtub scene mirrors Jacques-Louis David’s idealized painting of the murdered revolutionary martyr Marat, an association that immediately aligns Yoav with death. From Émile and Caroline’s erotically charged looks at his hard, lovely, sculpted body, Yoav also presents a morbidly romantic vision that’s reinforced when they pile him into a fur-covered bed.
In lesser hands, the story of Yoav, a 20-something Israeli escaping what he considers an oppressive society by moving to Paris, would be a sophomoric tale of the disillusioned ex-soldier. But by punctuating his film with arresting images and absurd vignettes, writer-director Lapid has conjured up an intriguing portrayal of the consummate outsider.
Synonyms” is a bold, original, impressive movie that has critics divided though it took top prize at the Berlin Film Festival this year. That’s not surprising. The best movies are strong enough to divide audiences, since unlike pics that are febrile, that do not hurt anybody’s feelings, controversial ones may have some people hating while picking up other people’s praise.
Synopsis: In Paris, things do not exactly get off to a good start for the newly arrived Yoav. He knocks on the door of the flat where he’s supposed to stay, only to discover the place is empty. While he is taking a bath there, his belongings are stolen. Yet this young Israeli, who has arrived with such great expectations, will not be dissuaded that easily. Desperate to erase his origins, Yoav sees becoming French as his only hope for salvation. Step one is to replace his language. From now on, he will not utter a single word of Hebrew and his dictionary becomes his constant companion. The necessary visits to the Israeli embassy annoy Yoav he finds his compatriots to be a total burden but the naturalization test also has its pitfalls. And the young French couple whom he befriends has some rather strange ideas about how to help him.
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.
Yaev commits himself to a total break from his former life, refusing to speak another word in Hebrew. To master French he learns the thesaurus. The expatriate roams the Parisian streets reciting synonyms. Frantic camerawork adds to the agitation of assimilation. There is a deliberate mixture of jolting hand-held camerawork which mimics the swift walks through the grey Parisian streets, slapping up and down with his legs. Quick pans zip up building facades to emulate Yaev’s fascination with scanning the new city. He is doomed to be the outsider looking in. The clichés of a glacial flâneur in Paris are met by a jittering visual code and a desperation to leave his identity behind.