“Synonyms,” shot in France by director Nadav Lapid, is about a young Israeli man, Yoav (Tom Mercier), who tries to exile himself not just from his birth country but from his native language, as well. The film gets its name from Yoav’s habit of walking down Paris streets muttering lists of French synonyms, trying to polish his knowledge of the tongue. He refuses to speak a word of Hebrew; when his dad calls from the airport, Yoav talks to him in English. “Synonyms” resists easy interpretation, especially because it places so much emphasis on the intense physicality of Mercier’s performance. It’s willing to be a mess at times. But it also avoids becoming a simple synonym about Israeli or Jewish identity.
Yoav gets shut out in the cold while naked in the opening of “Synonyms.” Upon arrival in France, his belongings are stolen and he learns that his apartment is completely empty. Surprisingly, he quickly befriends the couple Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte). He insists on making a new start in France. However, he can’t disconnect from Israel. He gets work through the Israeli Embassy. He can’t find a full-time job, however, and winds up performing in porn. His behavior grows increasingly unhinged.
The film describes a variation on a real phenomenon. Israel drafts 18-year-old men for three years of military service. When discharged, they’re given a payment amounting to several thousand US dollars and a good number use it to head to India for drug binges. Berlin is another popular destination. As it happens, Lapid based the film on his experience in the early 2000s. Like Yoav, he moved to Paris and tried to reject the Hebrew language. He credits this time with perceiving “cinema as essential, absolutely vital.” But he eventually moved back to Israel, where he now lives (although Mercier stayed in Paris after filming ended).
Yoav’s interactions with other Israelis in Paris show the other extreme. He occasionally hangs out with Yaron, a security guard who brags about introducing himself by saying, “I’m Israeli! I’m Jewish!” While this might be a defense against anti-Semitism, it comes across as obnoxious when he goes up to strangers at a bar and does it. On the other hand, Yaron is visibly Middle Eastern to a greater degree than Yoav, with darker hair and skin. Yoav’s European looks allow him the possibility of eventually passing as a Frenchman — if that is indeed what he wants.
Mercier had never acted in a film before. He shows few inhibitions. He’s unafraid to show off his body, appearing nude in three scenes. The camera often comes uncomfortably close to him; in the first scene, it practically touches him as he walks. His affect alternates between deer-in-the-headlights passivity and an impulse to provoke. It’s uncertain how much Yoav’s behavior is a put-on. In one of the film’s final scenes, a woman warns him that his imitation of madness has crossed over into the real thing.
“Synonyms” feels very literary, and not in a way that’s trendy at the moment. Yoav comes across as a holy fool out of Dostoevsky. The character loses control over himself. He’s willing to fray his small safety net.
But his desperation also rings true in contemporary urban life; his recitation of synonyms reminded me of seemingly unhinged people one encounters on New York streets. The difference is that here we have an entry point into the meaning behind his muttering.
Yoav never articulates a political critique of the Israeli government, instead throwing out a long string of negative adjectives to describe the country to Emile. We don’t see any of his military experience till the film’s final third, and it looks unpleasant in fairly banal ways. No single moment of violence pushed him away from the country.
But Yoav doesn’t really find a solution to his problems in France. He gets used by the couple he views as friends. His French classes try to instruct new immigrants in the attitudes shaping the lives of the French, but in a really condescending manner.
In the end, his exile becomes increasingly interior. He can’t become French or escape being Israeli. He’s an individual with a complex and difficult personality, but other people’s perceptions of him and the conditions in which he lives are ruled by those two countries. There’s no synonym for Yoav.
SYNONYMS | Directed by Nadav Lapid | Kino Lorber | In French and Hebrew with English Subtitles | Opens Oct. 25 | Film at Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St.; filmlinc.org | Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St.; quadcinema.com