By Glenn Heath Jr.
Yoav (Tom Mercier) arrives in Paris seemingly out of thin air, like some nomadic ghost searching for a place to haunt. In the phantasmal opening sequence of “Synonyms,” he breaks into an abandoned apartment, strips naked and takes a cold shower. Upon exiting the bathroom, his clothes have mysteriously vanished.
The young Israeli nearly freezes that night, but is luckily resuscitated by curious French socialites Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevilotte). But Yaov’s brush with death intensifies what is later revealed to be a complete disavowal of the Jewish culture and his national identity.
Director Nadav Lapid slowly and enigmatically peels back the layers to this ongoing ideological crisis. This results in a scattershot pace that speeds up and slows down depending on the main character’s whims, which makes “Synonyms” surely one of the strangest and most intoxicating films of recent memory.
Yaov’s dissatisfaction with Israel expands beyond the country’s social dilemmas, human rights abuses, and military policies. He decides to disavow Hebrew, his native tongue, for French in what becomes a linguistic act of defiance.
“Synonyms” frames Yaov’s shifting identity around multiple genre constructs, including riveting musical interludes, blasts of slapstick comedy, and war film iconography. This is a film that is bursting from the seams with possibility, even if the main character doesn’t always feel the same way.
Lapid is the rare art film director that manages to convey a certain mood without relying on singular cinematic aesthetics. Instead, he’s more focused on the actors themselves, and how physicality and prose help shield the emotional traumas underneath.
By the end of “Synonyms,” Yaov’s future seems no less certain than it did in the opening moments, but his pain has definitively been traced back to specific and undeniable origins at both a nationalist and familial level. In short, he’s a tragic personification of nationalism gone wrong, stateless with nowhere to scream.