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Review: Synonyms Is a Bold Work About the Human Struggle to Assimilate

Nadav Lapid’s film feels constantly like it’s not telling the audience something it needs to know.

Photo: Kino Lorber

Moving to a different country with only an imperfect grasp of a language can be a profoundly alienating experience. You speak your own version of the language, learned in classrooms and gleaned from dictionaries and canonical texts. At times, it turns out that a word you just blurted out hasn’t been used in everyday speech since the 18th century. Sometimes you appear insane, walking down the street muttering words to yourself as you use every opportunity to master vocabulary and pronunciation.

And then there are the more profoundly alienating experiences of moving abroad. In director Nadav Lapid’s strange Synonyms, Yoav (Tom Mercier) has just arrived from Israel to an empty, upscale, and freezing Paris apartment when his backpack, clothes, and supplies vanish while he’s masturbating in the shower. Stark naked and shouting in a foreign accent, he pounds on his neighbors’ doors. Yoav knew where the key was hidden for the apartment, but he clearly knows none of the neighbors who ignore his obvious pleas for help.

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.

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 his homeland. (When he assembles an extensive list of demeaning synonyms with which to describe Israel, Emile wryly responds, “No country is all that at once.”) At various times, Yoav shows himself to be fastidious, unorganized, controlled, childlike, learned, naïve, capable, and easily overwhelmed. He is, like Synonyms itself, more or less inscrutable from moment to moment.

Lapid’s film doesn’t hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile and Caroline feel to Yoav, and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after Synonyms takes a circuitous 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 he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. The film feels constantly like it’s not telling the audience something it needs to know; it flashes 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.

A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that’s most likely the point. Certainly one concern 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, accentuated by the film’s dissociative structure, 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,” as Caroline insensitively puts it. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another.

Cast: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte Director: Nadav Lapid Screenwriter: Nadav Lapid, Haïm Lapid Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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