'Synonyms' ('Synonymes'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Intense, feverish, unhinged, deranged, digressive, implacable, impressive.

Israeli auteur Nadav Lapid’s third feature stars newcomer Tom Mercier as an expat trying to emancipate himself in Paris.

Ever since A Moveable Feast and probably way before that, the expat-in-Paris story became a genre unto itself, yielding hundreds of novels and memoirs — and more recently, blogs, Instagram accounts and lifestyle bestsellers — as well as a handful of memorable films over the past half-century: An American in Paris, Charade, Frantic, Before Sunset, The Dreamers and Midnight in Paris, to name a few.

Yet the genre is not an easy one to tackle without hopelessly tumbling into a Seine full of clichés, so maverick Israeli auteur Nadav Lapid deserves credit for making his third feature, Synonyms (Synonymes), such a unique and bristling take on the Paris experience.

Far from the usual rosy hymns to the City of Light, this tale of a former IDF soldier trying to learn French and make a new life for himself — or rather, escape the life he led back home in Israel — is a fervid first-person chronicle centered around the volatile performance of newcomer Tom Mercier, who delivers a raw, disconcerting and altogether unpredictable turn that recalls the work of a young Tom Hardy (this includes his ability to act without any clothes on).

But Synonyms can also be a demanding film to sit through at times, especially during a second half that lacks the intensity of the opening segments. Lapid’s two excellent previous features, Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, were marked by an underlying tension from start to finish, as if the director pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and then held the lever down for the entire movie. Here, that bomb gradually gets diffused through a digressive plot and overlong running time, even if on an aesthetic and thematic level Lapid continues to surprise. After premiering in competition at the Berlinale, his latest should see more fest play and limited art-house action abroad.

When we first meet twenty-something Yoav, he’s made his way to a magnificent vacant apartment in the heart of Paris’ hoity-toity Left Bank. With only a backpack to his name, Yoav wakes up in the buff (in one of a few full-frontal nude scenes) in the early morning hours and takes a shower to try and warm up. When he gets out, he realizes someone has stolen his bag, after which he passes out from the cold and the shock. He may in fact be dead.

But he awakes a while later — born again, in a sense — at the home of a young and chic neighboring couple: the gentle wannabe writer, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and his musician girlfriend, Caroline (Louise Chevillotte). The two, who have money to burn and artistic ambitions to flame, quickly take Yoav under their wing. They give him some of Emile’s clothes (including an uber-stylish overcoat he wears throughout the movie), listening as he shares his thoughts and army stories in his very special brand of French.

Indeed, Yoav’s maniacal relationship with la langue française is one of the more striking aspects of Synonyms, whose title refers to its hero’s obsessive way of studying the French dictionary and repeating words aloud, like a rabid exchange student let loose upon the streets. Walking with his head down and his hands in his pockets, Yoav mumbles his way through the city while refusing to acknowledge its touristy splendor. He wants to experience Paris on his own terms, which seem to involve a complete immersion into the language and a total separation from his own identity.

But Yoav’s homeland is never far behind, especially when he gets a security job at the Israeli consulate that leads to a run-in with a few hot-headed compatriots poised for a fight. This brings out a side of Yoav that he clearly tried to bury by running away to a land of art, literature and extreme culture. Yet no matter how much he tries to speak in the refined words of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, while only once using his native Hebrew, Yoav cannot seem to tame the beast he harbors within.

Much of this is conveyed through Mercier’s unrelenting physical presence, which borders on explosive though never descends into outright violence. The actor, who was a theater student in Israel when Lapid discovered him, is both fascinating and slightly terrifying to watch. You never know if Yoav is going to launch into a long and verbose personal monologue or punch you right in the face. Or, like he does in one scene, leap up on a table and do a striptease to Technotronic’s club anthem “Pump Up the Jam.”

That sequence is one of several memorable set-pieces in a film that ultimately works better in parts than it does as a whole. Other standout moments include an intimate scene where Yoav and Emile listen to classical music and nearly fall into an embrace; a punishing photo séance where Yoav models nude for a perverse artist; and a surreal classroom sequence where a jingoistic professor (Lea Drucker) expounds the glories of France to a bunch of unsuspecting foreigners, culminating with Yoav reciting “La Marseillaise."

What’s interesting about that last scene is how well it illustrates Yoav’s impossible predicament: He’s done everything he can to flee the militaristic climate of Israel (glimpsed in a few surreal flashbacks), only to wind up spouting the blood-thirsty lyrics of the French national anthem. Like many expat stories, Synonyms reveals the futility of moving abroad to get away from oneself, and the real fight Yoav wages is against his own demons. Yet the story can also feel drawn out and discursive, with a few plotlines (such as that involving the Israeli thugs) never really finding fruition, and a three-way love triangle between Yoav, Emile and Caroline that feels a tad too flat and familiar.

This doesn’t mean the filmmaking is anything short of arresting in places, especially for the first half of the movie, and Lapid continues to exhibit a singular blend of intensity and absurdity, as well as a distinct attention to cinematic craft. Working once again with lenser Shai Goldman, he covers entire scenes in lengthy medium close-ups that serve to heighten the constant sense of claustrophobia, pushing the characters (and the viewer) to the breaking point. These sequences are intercut with extremely subjective, handheld POVs of Yoav wandering the streets of Paris but refusing to look up and take in the city’s many pleasures. All he can seem to feel is its pain.   

Production company: SBS Films
Cast: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte
Director: Nadav Lapid
Screenwriters: Nadav Lapid, Haim Lapid
Producers: Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Shai Goldman
Production designer: Pascale Consigny
Costume designer: Khadija Zeggai
Editors: Era Lapid, Neta Braun
Casting directors: Stephane Batut, Orit Zulay
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: SBS Internaitonal

In French, Hebrew, English
123 minutes