Nadav Lapid’s latest film loads its narrative with impactful stories about masculinity, language, and nationality.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 57th New York Film Festival.)
“No country can be all those things at once.” That’s what wannabe writer Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) tells his friend Yoav (Tom Mercier), after the latter rattles off a list of adjectives describing Israel. Writer/director Nadav Lapid cuts away before Yoav can offer a response.
In a similar fashion, I’m having trouble coming up with an elegant description and evaluation of Synonyms, a film so dense and loaded with meaning that it feels almost impenetrable. This is by maddening design – a more accessible Synonyms wouldn’t be as essential. But where does one even begin?
So let’s start at the start, a handheld shot of a Parisian lane. Instead of the romantic metropolis we’ve come to expect on-screen, the city just looks worse. Maybe it’s the cloudy, overcast weather or the shaky, unsure camera movement. Paris’ presentation is just the first contradiction Lapid concocts – eventually, we pan up on Yoav, a young man carrying everything he owns over his shoulder, and holding onto just as many private, clashing instincts.
Our protagonist is a young ex-pat; it’s his first day in France, the country he hopes, on some level, will save him. Yoav’s a confused twenty-something (what twenty-something isn’t?), and every fiber of his being disoriented. He’s left the Israeli army after taking lives in the name of an unjust nation, and his disillusion with the Jewish state is – on the surface – absolute. He vows to never speak Hebrew again. He swears he’ll never return home.
But what Lapid understands is that our internal programming runs deep, too. Over the course of this bold and brutal dismantling of masculinity, the filmmaker posits a direct link between the violent machismo of Israeli men and the national environment that created them – a toxic masculinity Yoav demonstrates on occasion as well, even as we get to know him as a sensitive, caring guy.
At one point, Yoav arranges a meeting between two ex-IDF Israelis – an interaction that opens with a rough wrestling match on top of a desk. Yoav watches from the sidelines, yet he can’t help but instinctively motion for a punch here and there. Violence, it seems, is another language Yoav is trying not to speak – still, it’s clear that all three men in the room are fluent.
How can a scuffle be a means of communication? How can a group of people who have been oppressed for millennium turn around and become oppressors themselves? It simply doesn’t make any sense.
Lapid’s debut Policeman (2011) had a similar focus on Israel’s inherent incongruities, but he’s refined his aesthetic into a maximalist opus. His cacophony of contradictions never turns into, well, cacophony; while his subject is a wrecking ball of insecurity, Lapid’s storytelling is confident and consistent, carried by the director’s sublime, subjective filmmaking.
You find yourself settling into these kinetic, long takes, clearing rooted in Yoav’s perspective – until the shot is punctuated by an object or appendage, swerving into the frame. The cinematography never feels like it’s following an established formula, as Lapid isn’t afraid of the occasional P.O.V. shot or even a Sean Baker-esque formal pivot (that’s confounding until it’s not). It all adds up to a movie that may not be a fast-paced, but beats with an intoxicating rhythm from start to finish.
All the while, we never leave Paris. Lapid has said in interviews that much of this material was directly inspired by his own life. But Paris is also the birthplace of the stories that inspired Synonyms itself. Stylistically, the film feels deeply indebted to the work of Jean-Luc Godard. Simultaneously, the national story of modern Israel began in Paris too (if you’re curious, just google “Dreyfus affair” and witness the great irony of Yoav’s belief in France).
But the single story that seems to have had the biggest impact on Synonyms has to be Taxi Driver. Then again, on closer inspection Lapid’s film is almost an inverse: Paul Schrader’s screenplay only implied much of Travis Bickle’s experience in Vietnam, while Yoav is constantly thinking about and reckoning with the ways his culture turned him into a weapon. Instead, he may have more in common with Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson than Bickle, another young man adrift in an imposing urban setting, only a few meters away from a breakdown.
Do our environments make us who we are, or can we blame the tales we were told – and how much are they worth? What’s the cost of commodifying one’s body – or narrative?
For these men to function as their works intend, there needs to be some warmth mixed in with the rage, some semblance of self worth holding on to. Mercier, in an impressive debut performance, delivers. There’s a vulnerability to his every move, and none of Lapid’s ambition would be fulfilled without his efforts here. He’s the beating heart of Synonyms, nothing less than completely committed to every scene.
It makes sense to examine Synonyms through the lens of the stories that inspired it, as its characters are constantly telling and evaluating stories themselves. Do our environments make us who we are, or can we blame the tales we were told – and how much are they worth? What’s the cost of commodifying one’s body – or narrative?
Lapid’s more interested in questions than answers, though he doesn’t seem particularly optimistic. Yoav’s struggle is Sisyphean. It is all this and more. My only hesitation is that not everybody will walk in with the context that makes Synonyms feel so rich.
But that’s the cost of doing business. To process the world in 2019 is to feel overwhelmed by a set of systems you cannot control – an experience Lapid has somehow bottled into one hundred and twenty-two minutes. Summing up Synonyms means nearly contradicting yourself, yet no portion of this lavish tapestry should’ve been jettisoned. Like Yoav, like Lapid, I don’t have a way of making things simpler, of converting the film or the world into something manageable. All we’ve got is this staggering, fabulous movie.