Review: Synonyms is wildly unpredictable yet painfully familiar

Israeli director Nadav Lapid goes for the jugular with a maniacal exploration of toxic nationalism, identity and shame


SYNONYMS (Nadav Lapid). Opens Friday (November 1). 123 minutes. Subtitled. See listing. Rating: NNNN


In Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, the promised land is a Left Bank Parisian apartment home to the French-est couple on earth.

That’s where ex-Israeli soldier Yoav (Tom Mercier) finds himself shortly after arriving in the French capital with only a backpack. He enters an empty flat and, in a farcical twist, suddenly finds himself naked and freezing in the shower. He passes out, seemingly dead, but is rescued by Émile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), a rich and unflinchingly stone-faced couple who would look right at home in a Jil Sander ad campaign.

They give Yoav stylishly minimal clothes to wear, which is perfect because he is running away from his home in Israel, a place he despises as “nasty” and “mean-spirited.” Mesmerized by Yoav’s traumatic army stories and slavish sense of self-discipline, Émile and Caroline become enablers and vultures in his quest to assimilate into French society and, naturally, a source of ridiculously intense sexual tension.

Full of sly gestures, disturbing comedy and linguistic humour, Synonyms is an energizing and mordant movie that cuts to the core emotions underlying wider geopolitical crises, specifically the refusal to reckon with dangerous nationalism.

Yoav hates Israel so much that he refuses to speak Hebrew and buys a pocket dictionary so he can teach himself French by reciting disparaging words and their synonyms with a sneering fury. His decision to run – to escape – happens in tandem with an aggressive self-repression. It’s the tension between those two urges that Synonyms captures so brilliantly.

Lapid, whose previous films include Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, has said the film is loosely based on his own experiences living in Paris in his early twenties. But France provides more than a setting. Synonyms manically mashes up two classic French cinema preoccupations – screwball and angsty art house – to ironically parallel the militaristic and macho aspects of both Israeli and French culture.

The film unfolds like a series of episodes, as Yoav falls in with a group of racist Israeli embassy suits who crave physical violence and see terrorists lurking around every corner. He places an ad to get modelling work and eventually takes classes to become a citizen. Along the way the situations can feel hyper-specific to Israeli history and Jewish migration, but the underlying themes always have a broad resonance.

The root of Yoav’s disgust for Israel is something he can’t articulate, but rather than grapple with his political and social realities, he chooses to run away. Although French society’s treatment of immigrants is partially Lapid’s satirical target, this idea of evading historical culpability could easily apply to a North American context, where slavery and treatment of Indigenous peoples has not been fully reckoned with. That said, Synonyms doesn’t exactly posit that nationalism is inherently bad Yoav still yearns to be part of a nationalist identity – it’s just that the one he was born into is toxic and the one he picks doesn’t want him.

Lapid underscores this perpetual outsiderness by portraying Paris as a dreary and unromantic tourist trap. Formal cinematic influences are clear from early on, but gradually Lapid subverts the familiar feel by using wild and unpredictable camera moves, set ups and editing to pull an edgy and intense subjectivity from the dreary surroundings. Lapid gradually suggests a deep shame, one that starts to manifest in ways that lead to Yoav’s debasement – physically and emotionally.

It’s also just an enjoyable visual approach that only feels undermined toward the end when the script starts to lay its thematic cards on the table in increasingly heavy-handed ways.

Mercier, a Judo athlete-turned-dancer, is enthralling and revelatory in his screen debut. Like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls, he’s a triple threat: a forceful presence, athletic and willing to be naked for long periods. His performance is physically demanding in ways that allow the director to take the story into not only uncomfortable terrain, but surreal stylistic digressions (there are several musical moments). 

With Synonyms, Lapid has achieved something great: it’s a political film without being didactic thanks to a zany visual approach that constantly seems to rebel against itself, much like Yoav.

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@kevinritchie

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