Feeling like a Frenchman trapped in an Israeli body, a young man flees from Tel Aviv to Paris, determined to shed his birth identity and become an embodiment of the cultural and moral essence of his new country in “Synonyms.” Writer-director Nadav Lapid has made a messy and sometimes baffling, but also a smart, funny, daring, provocative and thoroughly exhilarating film.
Inspired by Lapid’s experiences as an Israeli in the land of Napoleon and Godard, the movie (opening Friday at the Opera Plaza) is both a social satire and a human tragicomedy, skewering Israel and France alike as it presents its protagonist’s identity crisis.
Yoav (Tom Mercier), a former Israeli soldier, has arrived in Paris to abandon his homeland and its militarism and machismo. A jerky camera follows the fast-paced young man to an empty flat. His belongings get stolen. He ends up naked, freezing and unconscious in the bathtub.
Reviving Yoav are aspiring writer Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and oboist Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), a cultured, sophisticated and chic — basically, very French — couple. The two are infatuated with Yoav, whose Jewish body becomes one of the movie’s themes. Casual (and somewhat cliched) triangle dynamics develop.
Yoav’s rocky attempts to become French make up the story.
Refusing to speak Hebrew, Yoav buys a French dictionary and recites synonyms like “nasty,” “sordid” and “repugnant” while walking around the city.
To earn needed cash, Yoav performs security duties at the Israeli embassy. Later, in a disturbing segment, he models, nude, for a perverse, degrading photographer.
The picture darkens for Yoav as he realizes he can’t make his Israeli roots vanish.
Combining kinetic movement, social satire, broad comedy, expressionist realism, absurdist flashbacks and topics ranging from persecution complexes to Greek mythology to French pop music to cheap pasta, the film may prove too chaotic, confusing and excessive for some.
But Lapid knows how to stir up a beaker, and his skilled tonal mixology, the sharp screenplay and a remarkable lead performance add up to something audacious and original.
Satirically, the movie contains stellar material.
In an embassy scene, two of Yoav’s tough-guy Israeli colleagues greet each other, and a wrestling match promptly erupts.
Caroline and Emile symbolize French hypocrisy as they both exploit Yoav and treat him as a genuine friend.
Mercier, making his big-screen debut, gives a dazzling physical performance. He also impressively conveys Yoav’s mounting frustration. Operating on the same risky, crazy, deeply human wavelength, Mercier and Lapid make Yoav and this movie fascinating.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte
Written by: Nadav Lapid, Haim Lapid
Directed by: Nadav Lapid
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes