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NYFF Review

SYNONYMS

Guided along by a combustible lead performance from Tom Mercier, Synonyms reveals the densely layered qualities of language

Patrick Preziosi on Nadav Lapid’s ‘Synonyms’ (2019)

More so than any film in recent memory, Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms / Synonymes embraces the multivalent cinematic descriptor of “literary”, possessing a voracious fascination with the building blocks and sonorous quality of language, and the self-actualising possibilities of storytelling. In this freewheeling chronicle of Yoav (Tom Mercier), something of a stand-in for Lapid himself, the ex-Israeli soldier ducks from his home post-service to the City of Lights. Pledging to become French, he sets out on the paradoxical task of mastering a new language, while renouncing his mother-tongue, but still intending to preserve the memories (or “stories”, as he refers to them) that are so inextricable from his own hyper-specific upbringing.

Even as Mercier plays Yoav’s flashes of optimism and determination to intoxicating effect, an atmosphere of dread is established — and frequently returned to — in the film’s opening moments. All within a matter of minutes, Shaï Goldman’s cinematography goes from low-resolution, nearly indecipherable handheld tracking a just arrived Yoav through rain-slicked Parisian streets to stately stasis, as he arrives at what is assumed to be his Airbnb for the night. After fishing the key from under the mat, Yoav finds the ornate, Seine-adjacent home absolutely empty, and forgetting to lock the door when he decides to take a bath, finds his belongings quickly stolen. He is instantaneously an immigrant stripped absolutely bare, running around the entire building naked, slipping on the floor in a moment of precise but fleeting physical comedy, screaming for someone to help, that he’s freezing cold; no one answers.

The young, upper-crust couple upstairs, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), discover Yoav the next day, asleep in the tub he’d returned to in an attempt to stay warm, his pulse slowed to a crawl. After Yoav is lugged up to the couple’s apartment, he’s resuscitated, outfitted with some chic Kenzo button-downs and mustard peacoat by Emile, and already begins regaling the two with his stories, ranging from how his childhood obsession with the myth of Hector and Achilles, and the psychological tests he underwent in the IDF. Yoav’s mercurial presence establishes a relatively lighter tone, but Lapid, like the best directors working within such an absurdist-commentative mold, practices expert restraint, knowing exactly when to let his surrogate dominate the screen, and when to pull back enough to underline the circuitous everyday of this young immigrant.

In what unspools as a series of vignettes, somewhat shuffled about with recurring characters and motifs, there remains the one constant token of Yoav’s French-Hebrew dictionary, and his penchant for what scans as internal slam-poetry, as he runs through waterfalls of synonyms, phrases and the like in his own head. These spastic flurries of language can fashion themselves into prescient observations (again and again Yoav asserts he will not be fooled by Paris’ cosmopolitan qualities), but also seem to bear down on the transplant, as they offer a beat-for-beat view into his own teeth-gnashing quest for assimilation and individuality. Yonca Talu’s comparison of Yoav to any of Paul Schrader’s lonely men, from Travis Bickle to Reverend Toller, in her piece for Film Comment, rings especially true.

For Lapid, whatever’s funny can be equally exploited for discomfort, and vice-versa, as Synonyms sprawls like a Thomas Pynchon novel, a Jacques Rivette film, or a spiritual successor to Boots Riley’s equally assimilation vs. individuality minded Sorry to Bother You (2018). Much of this can be traced back to Mercier’s central performance, which he carries out with a physicality recalling Denis Lavant (in one sequence, he opens a few doors by banging his head against them, for no apparent reason), and an opaque sense of intent, organically stemming from his own unwieldy mission statement. Despite a sworn oath to never speak Hebrew again, he takes a security job at the Israeli embassy, and even befriends two separate, confrontational Zionists. When Yoav introduces the two to each other, they undertake a spontaneous bout of ridiculous roughhousing, a moment that highlights the regressive masculinity of violent nationalism in one fell swoop. Not even Yoav can help but be caught up in the thrill of the brawl.

Although Synonyms unleashes numerous tonal shifts without inducing whiplash, it’s a film that, in hindsight, can only have one end, its wildly differing passages buoying a creeping sense of unbelonging for Yoav. Between him and Emile, there’s bristling homoeroticism that becomes overwhelming when the two listen to classical music on separate pairs of headphones, padding at each other’s necks; however, Yoav enters into a green-card marriage with Caroline, and their own moments of intimacy are clinical and ritualistic. When Yoav’s father comes to Paris to spirit his son home, Yoav avoids him at all costs, effectively burning a bridge with one place, while still not fully inhabiting another.

All of this takes a toll on Yoav, especially when he undergoes the naturalisation process. Him and his classmates are reduced to matters of their respective races, a practice which unsettlingly parallels an earlier scene, in which a porn director screams at Yoav to moan and groan in Hebrew while fingering his asshole. When it suddenly seems like there’s no way out for Yoav, there’s the sudden fear that an external act of violence could be possible (not unlike Travis Bickle), especially when he points finger-guns at the now-gone Notre Dame, or tells the wonderfully surreal story of popping of killshots in machine-gunner training to the rhythm of Pink Martini’s “Sympathique”. The subsequent target riddled with bullet holes in its head and chest areas is as unsettling image as can be.

However, Yoav only becomes his own unwitting recipient for his boiling frustrations. At the film’s close, Yoav finds himself locked out of Emile and Caroline’s apartment, in a subtle mirroring of the film’s beginning. But this time around, Yoav isn’t begging to be let in, he’s throwing his entire body against the door, a swift, concise and — this being the film’s conclusion — abrupt depiction of one being quite literally locked out of France.

Synonyms screened as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.