2021, NR, 123 min. Directed by Nadav Lapid. Starring Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Uria Hayik, Olivier Loustau, Yehuda Almagor.

REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Feb. 26, 2021

The pursuit of shedding one’s national identity is the primary concern of Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s latest film, Synonyms. But how can that be possible? We all carry the memories, the cultural signs and internal psychology, the very language to articulate ourselves, can we just discard it so recklessly, and what then, would be left? Who would we be? Lapid examines these questions in this semiautobiographical story of Yoav (Mercier), who has decided to completely reject his native country of Israel and reinvent himself in Paris, to transform himself into la personne français.

Pursued by the camera, Yoav – and the film – careen into a completely empty Parisian flat, a blank slate to begin. It’s cold, breath cloudy cold. Yoav, in the shower, hears a noise, investigates and realizes he has been robbed of his backpack, all of his belongings. A completely blank slate, then. Exhausted, he lays in the tub, resigned to death, lacking merely a hanging arm over the side to complete the Marat tableaux. He is rescued by neighbors, a young couple, Emile (Dolmaire) and Caroline (Chevillotte), who take him in. They are the very essence of the French bourgeoisie: he a writer (“boredom structures me”), she an oboe player in a local orchestra. Rich and listless, they, along with a pocket-sized dictionary, provide the mentoring for Yoav’s quest. If only he could stop referring to plastic bags as “bags for cadavers.”

Idioms, rhyming word associations, and yes, synonyms, flow from Yoav in a constant stream. He is a sponge, trying to drown himself in this new culture. He finds employment at the Israeli embassy and lives like a pauper in a cramped apartment. He spends his time with other Israeli expats, along with Emile and Caroline, both of whom develop a deep attraction to him. Yoav shares stories with them, stories of his past, of his militaristic upbringing, of Greek mythology he holds dear, of his family torn apart by war.

Nadiv’s film forgoes an overarching narrative structure, which – depending on your patience with such things – is either exhilarating or exasperating. I found it to be the former, in no small part because newcomer Tom Mercier is absolutely riveting. It is a performance filled with such a startling range between innocence and violence, between cold blankness and bursting passion. It is a brilliant high-wire act. Yoav is utterly unpredictable at any given moment, and so too, is Synonyms. It is a director exorcising his hate, his contempt for a culture he sees as rotting and vile. Catharsis can be healing, but it can only take you so far, as Yoav soon learns. His mental health deteriorates, the severing of his past unmooring and thus alienating him from his adoptive home. This scathing satire reminds us that some facets of identity are impossible to shed. Your past is not something you can throw away.

Available now as a virtual cinema release as part of Austin Film Society's Children of Abraham/Ibrahim series.

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Synonyms, Nadav Lapid, Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Uria Hayik, Olivier Loustau, Yehuda Almagor

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