Moving to a different country can be both exciting and scary. On one hand, it allows you to experience and discover new things that you can’t get in your own country — from food to culture, people to places. Yet on the other hand, the fear of being alone without any family or friends whom you know you can always trust while having to deal with a language barrier can also be extremely overwhelming to a point where you would go back to the safety and familiarity of your old country in a heartbeat given a chance to do so. This fear and anxiety are essentially what Nadav Lapid’s third feature, the Golden Bear winning Synonyms, a frantically energetic, unhinged yet profoundly heart-breaking exploration on one’s identity and self-discovery, tries to capture in its deepest core, a personal alienation that a country escapee and an immigrant has to go through in another country.
The absconder in question is Yoav, a former Israeli soldier who runs off to Paris without any supplies or basic knowledge except his well-built, macho body that is as strong as his determination to leave his old country behind. When we first meet him, he just arrived from Israel in an empty, fancy Paris apartment with only one backpack and a sleeping bag in it. But just when he thought that everything is going fine and exactly as planned, things begin to go awfully wrong. His backpack, sleeping bag, clothes, and even underwear are stolen while he is having a bath. His futile attempt to chase down the culprit is to no avail. And after a few minutes of trying to snatch his belongings back, the shivering and terrified Yoav decides to go back into his bath and try to sleep his way to death, until a bourgeois French couple, Emile and Caroline, who live downstairs come to save him the next day, carrying his naked body as if he’s just being reborn to a whole new world by two surrogate parents whom he mistakes as a sole representation of how living in France looks like.
This couple is an epitome of the archetype contemporary French that we often think of whenever the word French pops in our mind. Emile is a self-proclaimed writer whose plan to finish a book called “Night of Inertia” will probably never be completed, while his girlfriend Caroline, is an oboist who clearly put an interest to Yoav ever since she carried his naked body the morning she met him. Both of them are always looking sharp and elegant behind expensive coats that hides their own insecurity, as if the contemporary French culture that conceals the anti-Semitic truth about France itself. But Yoav is clearly drawn to them and their lifestyle. In fact, he uses a mustardy coat Emile give him like it was a uniform that allows him to feel as French as them. He even refuses to speak Hebrew and begins to learn so many French words and their synonyms through a dictionary he just bought, assuming that stopping speaking Hebrew will help him readjust his tongue and sense of self in a new nation ashe tries to assimilate.
Whereas seeing Yoav chanting alternate adjectives about Israel, using words that he finds in his dictionary like “obscene”, “nasty”, and “idiotic”, allows us to understand his resentment towards Israel and their toxic militant masculinity that snatch his very own freedom, it is his assimilation process and rejection toward his old culture that prove to be more appaling throughout. At first, it his refusal to speak Hebrew, but later on, it is his attempt to pass his old stories to Emile which Yoav assumes can help him get stripped off of his entrenched Israeli roots. But anytime he’s getting inches closer to entirely shedding the culture he’s so condemned, the more it sticks even closer to his skin, especially once he’s realized that for now the only job he can take is a security work at Israeli embassy. This, of course, begins to gnaw his psyche and sanity, wrecking every ounce of his mind and body as if it refuses to let go of the Israeli blood Yoav is trying to withdraw. Worse, any attempts that Yoav does to shed his old self eventually ends up futile because every French person that he meets in his journey of becoming a new person, objectifies him by his Israeli roots. Be it the pornographer who orders him to scream in Hebrew while he fingers himself or even Emile who actually doesn’t seem to really care about helping Yoav, everyone will always see him from his homeland.
It all sounds very sad, because not only is Yoav’s effort at trying to seek the moment of rebirth fruitless, he is also forced to come to terms with the fact that wherever he ends up, he will always be seen by the Israeli blood in him. But in another way, what Nadav Lapid tells here also speaks volumes to how the world operates, in which a person, wherever they go, will always have a sign of nationality carved in his back no matter how much they try to wash it away. Maybe the terms Synonyms used in the title is not just meant for the dictionary that Yoav has, but rather to depict all corners of the world as the same places that will identify their inhabitants based on the place they were born. This is ultimately what Yoav learns at the end of the movie as he struggles to break Emile’s apartment door, which in a way represents the door of French, or any other culture, he could never break through. In the end, we learn that France is just a synonym of Israel. Even when France doesn’t share the same hyper masculinity issues that Yoav tries to avoid from Israel, what France has is also something that’s not less threatening than the problem Yoav’s encountered in his old country.
This is where Synonyms really excels, instead of wallowing this dreadful existentialism crisis that both Yoav and Nadav Lapid grimly inscribe here, the film chooses to structure this journey on one’s self-discovery in a totally wild and maddening fashion, heightened even more by Shai Goldman’s fascinating camera techniques that observes Yoav closely at every minute.
We’re never allowed to know where the film will go, and Nadav Lapid manages to use that tohis advantage. He creates a story that is unpredictable in and of itself without leaning on shock value, but rather on the sensuality of the episodic style that the film uses to chart down Yoav’s trajectory along the way. And by doing so, not only does Synonyms succeed at offering a weird storytelling with a political subtext beneath the personal theme of one’s soul-searching, Lapid also marvelously draws a very complex, ambitious performance in Tom Mercier, in which the line between feral intensity and complex vulnerability is blurred than ever.
All things considered, it’s safe to say that the uncivilized nature of Lapid’s storytelling may not be well-liked by everyone, but for those who really engage the grimness and sadness of this politically personal drama, will for sure be rewarded in the end.
Reyzando Nawara is a passionate Indonesian based film and TV enthusiast who enjoys to write and discuss about cinema or anything TV-related. Big fan of Mia Hansen-Løve, Alex Ross Perry, and Noah Baumbach.