Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

-- Tom Mercier in a scene from Synonyms, courtesy Kino Lorber

An Israeli in Paris learns the words, the streets, and some customs of the 1%

Directed by Nadav Lapid
Produced by SaÔd Ben SaÔd and Michel Merkt
Written by Nadav Lapid and HaÔm Lapid
Released by Kino Lorber
France/Israel/Germany. 124 min. Not Rated
French and Hebrew with English subtitles
With: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, and Louise Chevillotte

(Preview at 2019 New York Film Festival of Film at Lincoln Center)

By Nora Lee Mandel

Young Israelis freed from their required military service frequently leave the country to travel, some on short adventures, some for much longer. My cousinsí choices have ranged from traveling through Europe and the U.S., to climbing Machu Picchu, to settling in Japan. In Synonyms, director Nadav Lapid looks back on his experiences two decades ago, when he precipitously left Israel for France and intended to become French.

Yoav (Tom Mercier in a magnetically mesmerizing screen debut) is his extreme alter ego. He is determined to immerse himself in Paris and only speak French. He had made preliminary arrangements, bringing his knapsack to an apartment. His plan goes awry and he is left homeless, without clothes or possessions.

A young neighbor bourgeois couple, wannabe novelist Emile living off his family real estate empire (Quentin Dolmaire), and oboe-playing Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), see his needs as prosaic, and helpfully provide clothes, food, and work suggestions. Throughout the film their relationships frequently head into the predictable Bernardo Bertolucci territory of The Dreamers (2003), more one twosome or another than threesome, with some angst. But his first priority is communication, by getting a dictionary, and constantly expanding his French vocabulary.

Yoav tries working at the Israeli embassy as a guard (like the director also did briefly), and rebels. But it is a relief to see that he has enough drive and self-awareness to separate himself from his friendsí importunings, while still showing appreciation for their assistance. The key to his independence, he discovers, is his body, and a beautifully muscular one it is, like a dancerís, and how free he is with it. He takes various modeling jobs and soon realizes pornography pays best. Some viewers may consider a gig just borderline porn, or the kind of celebration of male-ness as in Lapidís Policeman (Ha-shoter) (2011). Meager income allows him the same basic daily meals in a tiny apartment, so he can keep exploring the non-tourist city, and he walks and talks around a lot; his peripatetic point-of-view is filmed with a small hand-held camera.

Some people he meets are fascinated that he is Israeli, the very identity he is trying to shed with his clothes. To counter stereotypes, he is also obsessed with Greek myths, particularly Hector of Troy, not Biblical heroes, nor from Israelís ancient or more recent history, reminiscent of the poetry obsession of The Kindergarten Teacher (Haganenet) (2014). He refuses to speak Hebrew, even to his worried father (Yehuda Almagor), who tries to get him to come home. The contact with his family spurs flashbacks to his soldiering, which vaguely suggests he has been struck by some Post-Traumatic Stress. There isnít quite enough evidence in those brief images to suppose political guilt.

Some confused viewers will be relieved to find a reason for Yoavís somewhat odd behavior. Others will either be unconvinced, or content to just watch Mercier move on screen, especially dancing without restraint, at least until his next roles.

October 27, 2019

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

To the Mandel Maven's Nest Reel Life: Flick Pix

Copyright © 2019