How many synonyms are there for great? Microsoft Word offers wonderful, fantastic, magnificent, excellent, terrific, cool, groovy, good, noble, elevated, lofty, exalted, imposing, stately, grand, impressive, heroic, splendid, and majestic. And that’s barely half of the words on the list. One or all of these terms could qualify Nadav Lapid’s remarkable Synonyms. As could illustrious, grand, or skillful, but you probably get the point.
Synonyms is an exhilaratingly kinetic new drama about migration, identity, memory, and belonging. The film, which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is an intoxicating odyssey. It pulses with vitality and vigour as Lapid draws upon his own experience as a young man in Paris. The film stars Tom Mercier in a captivating breakout performance as Yoav, Lapid’s cinematic alter ego. (Look no further for a perfect definition of screen presence.) Yoav is an ex-Israeli soldier running from his past in the City of Lights. He sheds his skin when the film begins, jumping into the shower of his new furniture-free apartment. Cleansing himself, scrubbing his body clean, and pleasuring himself (just a little bit) in the thrall of his new environment, Yoav hits his first bump on the road to becoming a Parisian when he turns off the taps. His clothes are gone.
Running up and down the stairs, bellowing to his neighbours with his dick wagging to and fro, Yoav could be in a dream, sitcom, or slice of migrant fanfiction. A Three’s Company scenario ensues when his neighbours Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) and Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) save him from his chilly tub. The apartment simmers with sexual tension as Yoav explores his new metropolitan lifestyle. This newfound threesome inspires Yoav to explore new facets of himself.
Yoav creates a new exotic European persona by ridding his Israeli self when possible and exploiting it when necessary. He makes a meagre living, surviving on a daily meal of pasta and crushed tomatoes. But Yoav’s tale isn’t another migration sob story. It’s a tale of freefall and disorienting discovery. Days, weeks, and months blur as Yoav finds himself anew. Dizzying episodes see him wander the streets in the same beige overcoat and white wife-beater. He’s in limbo while finding comfort in his skin.
Fuelled by self-loathing and a desire to escape his past, Yoav refuses to speak Hebrew. He pinches a Hebrew to French dictionary about immerses himself in his new language. Reciting words and their synonyms, he teaches himself a new identity—or, at least, the performance of one. Intense handheld cinematography lets the audience wander the streets of Paris through Yoav’s eyes as he extends his vocabulary. Word upon word, Yoav gradually distances himself from the Israeli soldier he once knew.
Language plays a crucial role as Yoav straddles his two worlds. Emile, an aspiring novelist, makes storytelling and poetry a facet of their charged bromance. They listen to music together—emotionally powerful scenes in which Lapid leaves the audience watching in silence—and trade stories. For Yoav, there is a literal act of trading as he spins his yarns for Emile. Yoav’s stories are all about the past. His tales are mostly from the Israeli army. They tell all about the things he did or didn’t do that inspired him to leave. His friend, a complete hack when it comes to cranking out poetic prose, uses these stories liberally. When Yoav’s situation in Paris becomes dire, he starts selling his stories as an alternative to modelling and sticking a finger in his ass for the cameras of pervy Frenchmen.
Despite the prominence of language in Yoav’s life, he can’t find the right words to explain his disdain for Israel. No perfect articulation is just a synonym away. He tastes word upon word and befriends a handful of fellow Israeli ex-pats in the process. However, he can’t find a way to write his story.
Moreover, his mentors aren’t exactly model citizens: they’re frequently toxic, obnoxiously so, and bait Parisians with hopes of inciting anti-Israeli remarks. Even when he enrolls in formal citizenship classes, perhaps the film’s one major misstep when things become a bit too on the nose, Yoav rejects the exclusionary politics and the rhetoric of exceptionalism with which France defines itself. The European nation, like Canada, prides itself on a policy of official multiculturalism but in practice marginalizes immigrants, refugees, and anyone who doesn’t fit easily within a box.
Lapid, who directed powerfully cringe-worthy The Kindergarten Teacher, which was remade last year with Maggie Gyllenhaal, has a gift for pushing stories and characters to the brink. Synonyms is often tough and awkward, but the challenges open up its exploration of belonging and indemnity. Fuelled by Mercier’s roller coaster of a performance that almost dances throughout every frame of the film, Synonyms challenges the very notions of “belonging” and “identity.” Yoav refuses to be put in a box. Similarly, there’s an ineffable discomfort to the film. Putting one’s finger on Synonyms isn’t easy, which makes its profound play on language “all the great.”
Synonyms opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Nov. 1.