Synonyms

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Golden Bear winner Synonyms
"The film is held together less by the tale than by tensions." | Photo: Guy Ferrandis/SBS Films/Berlinale 2019

There's a stream-of-consciousness approach to the latest from Nadav Lapid, not least because its lead character Yoav (Tom Mercier) is often captured in his distinctive mustard-coloured coat walking at pace through the streets of Paris muttering synonyms from the French dictionary he is currently hooked on - "The count, countess, duke, duchess, princess" - in between admonishing himself, "Don't look up". This feeling of being 'in the moment' with him never lets up for the entire film, so that we experience his life as he sees it, with all the confusion and contradiction, comedy and caricature that brings.

Yoav left Israel, seemingly on a whim, following his national service with the army, with the intention of starting from a blank slate - getting even more tabula rasa than he bargains for after a burglar enters the huge but empty house he is showering in, shortly after the Israeli's arrival, and runs away with all of his possessions, right down to his underwear.

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Stripped naked and unable to get any neighbours to answer the door, Yoav falls into a hypothermic stupor, until being found the next day by a young couple who live in the same block, who revive him. Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) are the cliche definition of modern French bourgeousie. He's the sort who could slip straight into a nouvelle vague film, ambiguous in his sexuality, moneyed by birth but careless with it and with the sort of deep irony that is spread - perhaps a little too thickly - over the action, is writing a book entitled Night Of Inertia. Who owns stories - like identities - will also become a thread in the film.

If everything about Yoav suggests propelling forward - a movement he tries to make to the last as though unable to stop no matter what lies in his path - they, in contrast, are deliberately treading water, happy in their quasi-domestic bubble, though thrilled by their new friend. Even that word might be better replaced by a synonym, acquaintance? Lover? Playmate? Shadow? They are certainly happy to build Yoav in their image, dressing him in Emile's clothes, handing him a phone and fuelling a sexual frisson. There's an almost fantasy element to the story - co-written with Haim Lapid - would all this really happen or are we trapped within Yoav's imaginings? Whatever the truth, audiences unwilling to go with the flow are likely to find themselves frustrated a long time before the film's two hours are up. The story, such as it is, charts Yoav's progress and encounters but it all goes to feed Lapid's notions of identity and how it can be (de)constructed. The criticisms of this Israeli military are also particularly searing, with ideas of aggressive masculinity undercut by absurdity, such as when, in a flashback sequence, we see him receiving an army honour, while a couple of his female comrades sing Milk and Honey's, innocent or cloying depending on your viewpoint, Eurovision winner Hallelujah.

The film is held together less by the tale than by tensions. Those between Yoav's old, jettisoned identity - he flatly refuses to speak Hebrew and bad-mouths Israel whenever he can - and his newly acquired persona, as well as his pre-conceived ideas about the French and, in turn, Emile and Caroline's innate beliefs about Israelis. That admonition, "Don't look up", also fuels them, as Yoav is torn between the draw of the architecture of Paris and the need to simply keep placing one foot in front on the other. The deliberately eccentric camerawork also plays a role here, occasionally swinging upwards in a quick glance and darting back almost as quickly. Mercier - surely set to be in a lot more lead roles after this - is like a force of nature in the role, hurtling between emotions like an angry wasp in a jar. In the end, it's the internal tensions that really twist to breaking point - the desire to lose an old identity may be strong, but its how to forge the new one without having it also shaped for you by others that proves Yoav's paradoxical plight.

Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2019
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Synonyms packshot
Tragicomedy about Yoav, a young Israeli determined to wipe out his origins and become French.

Director: Nadav Lapid

Writer: Nadav Lapid

Starring: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Jonathan Boudina, Gaël Raes, Chris Zastera, John Sehil, Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Jonathan Boudina, Gaël Raes, Chris Zastera, John Sehil

Year: 2019

Runtime: 123 minutes

Country: France, Germany, Israel

Festivals:

BIFF 2019
EIFF 2019

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