SYNONYMS: Farewell To Language

Have you ever wanted to remove your nationality like an ill-fitting item of clothing and just discard it? The protagonist of Nadav Lapid’s film Synonyms, whose story is based on experiences from Lapid’s own youth, makes a valiant effort. Winner of the top prize at the 2019 Berlinale, Synonyms is a tragicomic tale chronicling one man’s furious, frustrated attempts to become someone else.

Tired of a life dominated by hyper-masculinity and seemingly fanatical nationalism, Yoav (played by charismatic newcomer Tom Mercier) leaves his homeland of Israel behind and even discards the Hebrew language in favor of starting a new life in France. Armed with little more than a French dictionary and a borrowed yellow peacoat, Yoav is asked by a new friend, “What will you do here?” “I do not know. I’ll be French,” he says. “That’s not enough,” the friend replies, and indeed, Yoav all too quickly learns that it is not easy to become a new person when everyone around you is only interested in what the old one has to offer them.

New Beginnings

One of the first things the audience sees on screen in Synonyms, and one of the things we see most often, is Yoav’s naked body. A disenchanted soldier, Yoav is in peak physical form. His rippling muscles – and his circumcised penis – are a constant reminder of the life he left behind in Israel, both for himself and everyone else around him. Chief among them is a bourgeois couple who come to Yoav’s rescue when he nearly freezes to death in a Paris flat after someone steals all of his belongings.

Emile (Quentin Dolmaire), a struggling writer living off his factory-owning family’s riches, and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), an oboist in a small orchestra, are the epitome of cosmopolitan white privilege. They live comfortable lives devoted to the arts in a nice, expansive flat; in contrast, Yoav eats the same cheap pasta meal every day and takes a job as an artist’s model, where he is exploited by the photographer for his perceived exoticism, to make ends meet.

SYNONYMS: Farewell to Language
source: Kino Lorber

The chemistry between Emile and Yoav borders on the sensual, with both men seeing and prizing in each other everything the other is not. Emile is fascinated by Yoav’s stories of life in the military, rife with testosterone and unlike anything he has experienced; at one point, Yoav offers Emile his stories to use as writing material, before eventually reclaiming them for himself. As Caroline later tells Yoav about Emile, “With you and all your stories, he feels banal.” In the meantime, Caroline chooses to take advantage of Yoav in a much different way, and the two embark on an affair. However much Emile knows about it, he doesn’t seem to mind, even encouraging Caroline to marry Yoav so he can stay in France. However, once the union occurs, both Emile and Caroline lose interest in Yoav; no longer existing in a perpetual state of flux, he is no longer a source of excitement for them.

Lost, Not Found

Whether it be through the dramatic stories he tells or the physical pleasure he gives, it is clear that neither Emile nor Caroline is capable of seeing Yoav as more than a momentary diversion from the comfortable monotony of their lives. His past trauma is perceived by them as a novelty, something to be entertained by and inspired by but not to really take seriously. At one point, Emile makes the same simple pasta dish that Yoav survives on for Caroline at home, but he ends up adding capers to it; Emile is so privileged that he is incapable of even properly playacting at the poverty that defines Yoav’s existence in Paris.

SYNONYMS: Farewell to Language
source: Kino Lorber

Yoav’s struggle to leave his past behind is made extra challenging in that no one else will let him. Emile wants him to keep sharing his stories of military life, while the photographer who hires him for a sexually explicit shoot insists that he yell and moan in Hebrew because he likes the sound, despite not understanding any of the words. Meanwhile, a fellow Israeli in Paris, Yaron (Uria Hayik), is the polar opposite of Yoav; while Yoav wants to submerge his national identity and never speak Hebrew again, Yaron lives for being Israeli and goes so far as to aggressively sing Hebrew songs in the faces of Paris commuters. Obsessed with defending fellow Jews from right-wing terrorism, Yaron is the human embodiment of the toxic masculinity and fervent nationalism Yoav wants to permanently abandon.

Fraying Roots

In Yoav’s French citizenship classes, the teacher boasts that no one in France talks about their religion, but where does that leave you when your religion has been the core of your identity your entire life? Yoav might not want anything to do with Israel, but he is also incapable of becoming truly French, no matter how seriously he takes his various misguided attempts at assimilation. When Yoav asks to reclaim his stories from Emile, it isn’t because he wants them back — it’s because after being rejected by the French, those stories of his past are all he has left to define himself.

Co-written by Lapid and his father, Haim Lapid, what Synonyms lacks in a traditional plot it makes up for in richly authentic emotion. Lapid leaves the wounds of his youth open and raw on screen, and the lingering pain infuses every frame. The conflicts at the heart of Synonyms are heavy ones, but they are balanced with moments of comic absurdity that highlight the lighter side of the film’s culture clashes. Filled to the brim with furious and frenetic energy, Synonyms is defined by its central character; even the camera work, rife with constant movement, echoes Yoav’s inherent chaos as he struggles and fails to find a clear path forward into a new future. Mercier, a former judoka turned dancer, bears a striking physical resemblance to Tom Hardy and, like that actor, has a keen ability to plumb the depths of masculine emotion. It’s impossible to tear your eyes away from him when he is on screen, and not just because he is beautiful to look at; he has the natural magnetism of an old Hollywood star.

SYNONYMS: Farewell to Language
source: Kino Lorber

Dolmaire, whose elegant cheekbones and delicate stature make Emile a perfect contrast to Yoav physically as well as culturally, is Mercier’s ideal opposite number, and their instant chemistry is deliciously palpable; indeed, their attraction to each other is so intense that for most of the film I assumed Yoav would fall into bed with Emile, not Caroline. The inevitable devolution of their relationship is as tragic as any broken romance, if not more so because of its larger implications. Blood is thicker than water, Lapid seems to be telling us, and even if you try your damnedest to believe otherwise, others will not let you forget it.

Synonyms: Conclusion

Putting down roots in a new place is never easy, but trying to become a new person is even harder. Yet even if you’ve never attempted either of these things, the conflicts at the heart of Synonyms will resonate deeply, thanks to Lapid’s deeply personal storytelling and Mercier’s fiery performance.

What do you think? What are your experiences with assimilating to a new culture? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Synonyms is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming services in the U.S. You can find more international release dates here.

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