NYFF Review: 'Synonyms' Explores a Stranger's Life in Paris Directed by Nadav Lapid
Starring Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte
Published Sep 30, 2019Frantic, handheld camerawork sets the pace of Nadav Lapid's rich, subtext-laden Synonyms, as we meet Yoav (a kinetic Tom Mercier), freshly out of the Israeli military service, disenchanted, and eager to establish himself anew in Paris. After having everything including the shirt off his back stolen, he luckily finds a friendly neighbour — two, actually: Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), a wealthy intellectual couple happy to help him get back on his feet as much as they are titillated to find something to shake up their bourgeois boredom.
With a starter pack of garb from Emile's want-for-nothing wardrobe, and a newly purchased French dictionary, Yoav has everything he needs to hit his idealized Parisian streets and work on cultivating an identity. The trio amuse and feed off of each other, and this chance emotional triangle finds Yoav immersed in the romantic French lifestyle he's been dreaming of.
It's a rocky road to solace, though, and Yoav's assertive approach to acclimation — going so far as to swear off Hebrew, even refusing to speak it to his mother on Skype — doesn't help smooth out his awkward speech or the city's sharp edges. The camera mimics this tension, shifting to handheld POV whenever Yoav is outside (head down and repeating French lexicon to himself), and depicts a grittier City of Light than the one typically shown in films.
Lapid, who based this story on his own arrival in Paris in the early 2000s, jerks the viewer from cathartic scenes at a dance party to Yoav barely being contained by the walls of his bare-bones studio apartment, decorated only with stolen postcards of Kurt Cobain, Napoleon and Van Gogh (and later the possible addition of Zinédine Zidane, whom the director loves). More than anything, the choreography of Synonyms is a stage for Mercier, who, in his debut, plays Yoav as if he were not just acting but dancing (sometimes literally). His performance is nothing short of electric, so commanding and alive is his presence on screen.
These cinematic bursts of restrained excitement and mania envelop Yoav's day job working security at the Israeli embassy, a place of confinement, but familiarity, where he can seek shelter and perhaps keep home within arms reach. Flashbacks bring us a taste of his previous life in the military, which feel not unlike the French integration classes he has to take as part of his naturalization. Yoav's doe-eyed delusions are continuously highlighted by jaded Emile who, with his father's financial support, spends his days writing, and Caroline, who practices the oboe because it's "as close to growing potatoes" as she can get.
In all of these scenarios, Yoav is presenting a part of his identity and withholding another as he tries to navigate how to fit in. In one particularly memorable scene, a side gig finds him modeling for a porn director, an interesting choice of work as it becomes evident throughout their interaction that only via performance is it safe for him to show the parts he is trying to suppress. Acting becomes reality, or a coping mechanism to be able to fake it till he makes it. Even when veering on the nihilistic, the film is heady and incredibly funny, playfully dabbling in the absurd.
"Devour… eat everything, eat the entire city," Yoav tells himself, hyper-focused and always on the move. But he can't hide from who he is, running from one oppressive existence into another, confined by new laws, new walls, new words and the limitations of self-expression that come with a new language. As Yoav's illusions about this mythical place start to chip away, he begins reclaiming the domain of his own body, which he had so readily given away in the past. The troubles of the world will find Yoav wherever he may go, or as Emile says to him about France: "rot and banality, same as everywhere" — but his stories and his life are all he, or anyone, ever really has to distinguish himself so he'd better start holding on to them.