Do not look up.
Israel has no future in Yaov’s (Tom Mercier) mind. It’s dead and he refuses to die with it even if he just risked dying for it to earn a silver star in the military. Why? Because his country won’t admit its failures or mistakes. They are victors. That’s it. They are owners of their land and the righteous keepers of their religion against any so-called “terrorists” displaced as though they were animals running wild to be shooed away. One could say Israel is therefore a destroyer at its core and Yoav no longer wishes to exist beneath that shadow. So he uproots his life, escapes to the airport with nothing but a backpack, and finds himself in an expensive and abandoned Parisian flat without any heat.
That’s how Nadav Lapid‘s Synonymes [Synonyms] begins—a semi-autobiographical account of his own self-motivated exile from his homeland to France years ago. The project is a family affair with his father Haim co-writing and his mother Era acting as one of three credited editors, their experience watching their son leave surely proving a boon towards putting a shared sense of angst, anxiety, and crisis of identity onto the screen. Only they know what it felt like to endure this unexpected fracture with the past because they witnessed it unfold first-hand. After all, it wasn’t enough for Nadav (and his surrogate Yoav) to flee. He gave up Hebrew as his language, pushed Judaism to the side, and dove into a French dictionary in order to resurface reborn.
He gets the chance too with a stroke of bad luck quickly followed by good. The bad sees him hopping to the bathroom in his sleeping bag to take a shower only to find that bedding and his clothes stolen upon exiting the tub. Who stole it? Who knows? We have to assume he didn’t belong in this home and whoever told him to go there probably perpetrated the crime. It’s after his naked attempts to find a neighbor willing to let him in that the good arrives thanks to Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Charlotte (Louise Chevillotte) discovering him unconscious in the morning. Above mere salvation, Emile’s family’s wealth also provides Yoav the means for continued survival. His compensation is Yoav’s eccentric stories of past stresses and humor.
We get those on top of the present’s equally weird moments of lunacy. That it takes almost until the end of the film for Caroline to recognize Yoav might actually be insane and not simply pretending in a bid to make her and Emile laugh is surprising because it seemed pretty obvious to me. Even so, however, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn most of what’s on-screen is filtered through the lead character’s imagination since it’s all so hyper-real in its emotions and actions. Whether it’s Yoav and Emile listening to music in a sort of sensual way that makes Caroline appear jealous or how Yoav and Caroline gravitate towards each other despite their love for Emile, the power of their feelings and ease of kinship is fantasy-like.
They were strangers after all. Strangers connected by a near-death experience wherein Emile just gives Yoav clothes, money, and more. What a way to highlight all that he has compared to everything this newcomer lacks—a man wanting for nothing opposite a man escaping with nothing. Emile and Caroline are content to spend their days without a care in the world, writing and playing music respectively, while Yoav recalls the danger and drama of his youth. This is yet another contrast: Emile writing without any real experiences to draw from and Yoav having plenty of lived excitement without an outlet to express it. The latter wants to eradicate it and begin anew. He seeks to erase the scars of his past self and his part in Israel’s oppression.
And while the flashbacks of those times can be harrowing (Uria Hayik‘s Yaron enters as an example of the Zionism Yoav fought against), they’re also very funny. Lapid walks that line between suspense and comedy throughout the film, terrorizing us with unpredictable situations while also humoring us with their absurdity. I recall a subway scene where Yaron makes good on his prideful declaration of walking up to strangers and telling them he’s Jewish to pick a fight with anyone who thinks being such makes him inferior. So he loudly hums a song with yarmulke on head (Yoav doesn’t put one on his own) directly into the faces of commuters minding their own business. He’s itching for a war to show his might and he may eventually find one.
While Yaron is therefore the prototypical Achilles, Yoav is his own childhood idol Hector—confident in large part because he’s willing to run away not as a coward, but as a man possessed by conviction. He exists modestly in a one-room apartment eating the same, cheaply made meal each day with no one but his two new friends to sustain him. They give him money and he provides them entertainment. He uses them unwittingly as they do the same intentionally. This dynamic builds towards an inevitable confrontation wherein his adopted identity finds itself slamming its head into a wall just like his previous one. Yoav traded rigidity for freedom and yet he’s still being asked to conform. Everywhere he turns, someone is reaching for his strings.
Synonyms is obviously a cathartic piece of art for its creator and one possessed by a unique voice that’s augmented by Mercier’s central, unbridled performance. But I won’t lie and say I didn’t feel at arm’s length for much of the runtime, treading water due to its lack of a motive beyond personal exorcism. It’s a dense work propelled by metaphor and constructed of disjointed vignettes tied together by feeling rather than plot. That stylistic choice has never been one I can easily thaw to and as a result I do wonder if Lapid’s film works better as fascinating pieces than they do as a potentially profound, cohesive whole. I enjoyed so much of what I witnessed and yet can’t stop thinking the key that unlocks its greatness is missing.
[1-3] Scenes from Synonyms, courtesy Kino Lorber