In the opening scenes of Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli man who has just arrived in France without a penny to his name, wakes up in the mysteriously empty, spacious building where he’s camped out for the night, goes into the shower, and briefly jerks off. Stepping out of the bathroom, he finds that his clothes have been taken (we never find out by whom) and he runs, naked and frantic, among the building’s many bare rooms looking for them, gradually getting colder, until he seems ready to freeze. It’s a situation that starts off as a joke, then transforms into an anxiety dream, then a dance — there’s a tight, performative grace to Mercier’s movements — and then an existential threat— Yoav winds up back in the bathtub, desperately rubbing his arms and legs trying to get warm — before landing in the realm of metaphor. The young man has found himself naked and alone and possessionless in a strange new land, at the mercy of the very air around him, unable to hide.
He’s also, it seems, ripe for reinvention. When the posh French couple that lives upstairs, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), discover Yoav, they give him Emile’s clothes. For the young man, who hopes never to see Israel again, and who refuses even to speak Hebrew anymore, it feels like a new beginning, especially since Emile’s clothes make him feel like a dandy, or maybe even royalty. But right from the beginning, there’s a slightly sexual edge to the Parisian duo’s interest in Yoav; Emile notes that he’s uncircumcised. Later, Yoav will find that his body is an endless source of fascination for those around him, including a pornographer who wants to put him in a sexual scenario with an Arab woman.
Throughout, there remains an air of trauma around Yoav. He has stories — vague ones — about his life and his disturbing experiences in the Israeli military, and we sense his rage and desire to break free. The idea of death is never far: When he first wakes up and sees Emile and Caroline, he asks, “Is this death?” When they give him a plastic bag, he refers to it as “a bag for cadavers.” Stalking the streets, tensely reciting French words and phrases to himself, his head down in concentration and maybe fear, his thoughts keep turning to violence, repression, cruelty, humiliation. He recalls his admiration as a child for Hector, the legendary warrior of Troy. He then remembers that his parents refused to tell him what happened to Hector; promises of military glory rarely acknowledge the gross murder that is its constant companion. A flash image of a man’s body being dragged — much as Hector’s was — from the back of a van at night, along a slick, busy street in Israel, hints at the horrors that crowd the young Yoav’s mind, though we have no idea if this represents a memory, a projection, or a nightmare.
Synonyms is based loosely on Lapid’s own experiences, when, in his early 20s, not long after completing his military service, he fled to France. “Attaching my future to Israel would be a disaster,” he recalled thinking, in a 2014 Bomb Magazine interview. “I wanted my life to revolve around the sky, trees, love, sex, human nature, and not whether or not to have a peace contract with the Palestinians, whether to give them Gaza, and so on … I felt strangled by this place.” Much like Synonyms’ protagonist, Lapid himself swore not to speak Hebrew, and wandered the streets with a French dictionary. And, much like other exiles before him, he discovered an inconvenient fact: “I’ve never felt myself so Israeli as when I was in Paris,” he says in that same interview.
For all this raw sense of darkness, Synonyms’ narrative is somewhat elliptical, its tone hovering between bemused and deadpan. Characters sometimes speak in non sequiturs, break into dances, or start fights. Lapid’s framing is achingly precise, except when it’s not; whenever Yoav goes for his head-down walks, the camera drifts feverishly along streets and among feet, assuming his point of view. (When the young man finally looks up, he sees Notre-Dame.)
But for all the artful obliqueness of Lapid’s approach, the autobiographical background of the story lends it a lived-in honesty; the incidents and interactions of Synonyms feel both symbolic and true. One could compare the picture to Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s similarly excellent — though far more absurdist — It Must Be Heaven, a comedy about exile in which the filmmaker flees Bethlehem for Europe and America, only to discover that the whole world has effectively become Palestine. Something similar happens to Yoav: He takes a French class and recites the French national anthem, with its references to a land being soaked in the blood of the impure; aggression and death and fear and violence are everywhere, for those attuned to them.
When Yoav falls in with a group of macho security workers at the Israeli embassy, it might at first seem odd that a guy seeking to start a new life might hang out with people who would remind him of his past. It might also seem odd that he’d become fast friends with Yaron (Uria Hayik), a tough-minded, somewhat delusional colleague who’s the flipside of Yoav. Instead of hiding his identity, Yaron tells everybody he meets that he’s Jewish, and from Israel, right away; he also fantasizes about how he might have stopped various terrorist attacks in France. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Yaron slaps a yarmulke on his head in the subway and hums the Israeli national anthem while stomping around, staring directly into passengers’ faces. They turn away from him so quietly and with so little outward puzzlement that I wondered if this was meant to be a bizarre dream sequence, until I realized that this is probably what I’d do too if some random guy on a subway started staring at me and singing “Hatikvah.” That’s part of the beauty of this film: It games out very real, very human impulses to their surreal breaking points, only to uncover even greater truths.
Yaron might be Yoav’s diametrical opposite, but in truth, the two men represent something fundamental. Yoav is unable to discard his identity, because it’s more than an identity — it is a self; the very fact that he wants so desperately to shed it means that he cannot. The film is built around this inescapability, both narratively and formally: All its ellipses and repetitions, its shifts in style and tone, its raw fascination with bodies and movement, circle around this sense of cognitive, corporeal entrapment. Our sense of being in the world is life’s most infernal chicken-and-egg question. What came first, the person or the persona?