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‘Synonyms’ Review: An Astonishing, Maddening Drama About National Identity — Berlin

Nadav Lapid goes to Paris for this brilliant and maddening story about an Israeli man desperate to be French.

“Synonyms”

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Nadav Lapid’s astonishing, maddening, brilliant, hilarious, obstinate, and altogether unmissable new film “Synonyms” opens with a sequence that might be described as a sideways attempt at psychic suicide. A twentysomething Israeli traveler named Yoav (extraordinary newcomer Tom Mercier) strides through the rainy streets of Paris in a shaky low-def shot that resembles paparazzi footage of a celebrity trying to leave the press behind. He storms into one of those gorgeous old buildings along the banks of the Seine, digs out the hide-a-key, and opens the door to a cold and cavernous apartment. There’s no couch, no bed, no furniture of any kind, but Yoav doesn’t seem to mind the monastic vibe; the camera relaxes into the refined grammar of contemporary European cinema as he surveys the empty space.

Yoav strips nude in the tub, revealing a soldier’s body, and yanks at his genitals. Then, some rustling from the next room over. A robbery? He leaps out of the bath, races through the empty flat, and slips onto the wooden floor with the same comically unscrewed masculinity that surged beneath Lapid’s masterful 2011 debut, “Policeman.” A few minutes later, after racing naked through the building and breaking back into his Airbnb, a shivering Yoav chooses to sink back into the bath and wait for death. Awakened the following morning by Emile and Caroline — the beautiful bourgeois couple who live downstairs — Yoav is reborn.

“Synonyms”

So begins a sui genesis work of tormented genius — a strange and singular misadventure about the violence of trying to replace one identity with another. Co-produced by “Toni Erdmann” director Maren Ade, and loosely based on Lapid’s own experience as a young man who fled to Paris because he believed that he was born in the Middle East by mistake, the filmmaker’s disorienting third feature continues his forensic, career-long fascination with the impossible knot that ties a person to their country — specifically, his country — like the bust on the bow of a sinking ship.

His latest movie is called “Synonyms,” in part because Yoav obsessively carries a pocket-sized French dictionary in order to help himself abandon the Hebrew language, and in part because this is the story of someone who substitutes one citizenship for another only to find that they all basically mean the same thing (after listening to Yoav describe Israel with a dozen terrible adjectives, Emile cooly replies that “No country can be all of those things at once”).

All of Lapid’s cinema — even his less explicitly hostile “The Kindergarten Teacher” — reflects a certain strain of Israeli militarism, but Yoav is the living personification of that impotent rage. He’s a volatile mess of unspent manhood, desperate for freedom but conditioned for war, and Mercier’s hypnotic performance makes the character seem as though he’s got one foot stuck on a landmine and the other flailing about in search of solid ground.

Here is an actor capable of possessing a movie, like Daniel Day-Lewis or Denis Lavant, and a movie as episodic and unmoored as “Synonyms” is only sustained by the tension Mercier brings to every scene. He’s dead behind the eyes one moment, and twirling in place the next. Emile (cat-like “My Golden Days” star Quentin Dolmaire) gives Yoav a mustard-collared peacoat as the first gesture of the homoerotic quid pro quo relationship that forms between them, and Mercier constantly wears it like a Spartan warrior strutting down the runway of a fashion show. The ex-soldier is so convinced that France will be his freedom that he doesn’t seem to realize he’s just exchanged one uniform for another.

“Synonyms” doesn’t have much of a legible plot. Lapid has said that time “wasn’t a precise state of consciousness,” and the erratic flow of this film reflects that. It doesn’t always add up, but it builds with the transfixing power of a primal scream. Most scenes follow Yoav as he tries to shed his Israeliness, an oblique process that’s often expressed through latent details (this is hardly an apolitical work, but Lapid has so little interest in the specifics that it’s jarring when a sequence towards the end invokes the names of current world leaders). He rents a tiny apartment, and lives on less than two Euros a day. He gets a job at the Israeli embassy — presumably for work visa reasons? — and only speaks his native tongue through gritted teeth. He listens to Caroline (a somewhat underwritten Louise Chevillotte) play the oboe, and tells Emile stories about his terrorist grandfather, his childhood obsession with the Trojan warrior Hector, and a number of surreal anecdotes about his time in the IDF.

“Synonyms”

With little warning or explanation, Lapid sometimes cuts to these stories in flashback; a bit where Yoav fires a machine gun to the tune of a French pop song is fried with the same seriocomic banality that gave Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot” its bite (or, on the other side of the border, Elia Suleiman’s “The Time that Remains”). Some of the contemporary asides are even stranger and more amusing. Yoav introduces a nationalistic embassy colleague to a steroidal ex-pat who looks like the ex-Mossad agent Sacha Baron Cohen played on “Who Is America?,” and participates in regular pitchfork fights with Paris’ Neo-Nazis; the two men greet each other by engaging in a long and laugh-out-loud funny wrestling match on top of an office desk, as Lapid takes the piss out of his birth country’s empty penchant for hyper-masculinity. It’s a stinging critique from someone who couldn’t breathe in the chokehold of his country’s reflexive military violence, even when it was rationalized as a natural response to millennia of victimization.

That’s a difficult headlock to escape, and Yoav discovers that his national identity stalks him like a shadow. The harder he tries to shed his skin, the closer it sticks to his bones. One indelible scene finds him working as a nude model for an overzealous photographer who’s never met a boundary he wouldn’t cross; he instructs Yoav to lie nude on the floor of his studio, stick a finger up his own ass, and scream in Hebrew. As he yells epithets the photographer can’t understand, furious that even his naked body is being seen as Israeli property, it seems like Yoav is finally about to snap. But Mercier’s performance is defined by its see-sawing imbalance between power and helplessness, and — much like his director — his body becomes his only pure expression of control.

Few directors have understood the raw physicality of a movie camera better than Lapid, whose collaborations with cinematographer Shaï Goldman are shot with a puppeteer’s sense of kinetic poetry (much of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” for example, was filmed from the height of its five-year-old subject, which rooted the story in a ruined innocence that the less virtuosic American remake couldn’t even try to emulate). In “Synonyms,” Yoav and Goldman are locked in a perpetual tango, and frequently stepping on each others’ toes. The actor leads at first, but the DP takes over as Yoav inches towards French citizenship, out of one cage and into another. Lapid’s choreography allows these two conjoined forces to create a visceral language of their own; French and Hebrew both submit to the silent vernacular of suffocation.

Using a stiff art house aesthetic as a control, the film constantly cuts into expectations with line-jumps, whip-pans, and fluid shifts from one plane of action to another, as if the camera itself can’t tell if it’s settling into a new home or trying to escape from an old prison. That such manufactured indecision proves more arresting than infuriating is a testament to editor Era Lapid, Nadav’s mother, to whom the film is dedicated.

Something takes you by surprise in almost every scene, which is par for the course in a movie that postpones its one predictable development for almost a full 90 minutes (there’s no incest here, but Lapid never finds a right angle for the same kind of bizarre love triangle “The Dreamers” executed better). And it only grows more powerful in its beguiling final stretches, when the mundane setting of Yoav’s naturalization course devolves into a bitter, caustic, and unexpectedly moving stalemate between pride and revulsion, immigration and emigration, one word for home and another.

It may seem like an impertinent thought in the midst of a global refugee crisis, but “Synonyms” translates Yoav’s dilemma into an unshakable portrait of a man whose passport only gets him so far, who’s grown tired of carrying the baggage that comes with being an Israeli, and who’s driven to the brink of madness by a world that forcibly identifies people by the place they were born. Lapid’s film is too fresh and intransigent to know how well it will age over time or hold up to repeat viewings, but on first blush it feels like a powerful howl that’s hard to hear clearly, and harder still to get out of your head.

Grade: A

“Synonyms” premiered at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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