NYFF 2019 review: Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Synonyms, Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s third film, follows the successful release of Policeman in 2011 and The Kindergarten Teacher in 2014. The story follows Yoav, a strapping and handsome young man who has fled his Israeli homeland to start a new life in Paris. Yoav befriends a young bourgeois Parisian couple, Emile and Caroline, and immerses himself in the French language and culture. Anchored by an invigorating script and strong performances, specifically by Tom Mercier who plays Yoav, Lapid creates an outstanding and layered film that examines national, sexual, and cultural identity.

After Nadav Lapid completed his time in the Israeli military he entered university to study philosophy in Tel Aviv. During this period he became interested in film and decided, without notice, to leave Israel and move to Paris. Exhausted from his own Israeli identity, he began to devour French culture and language. For many of these reasons, Yoav is an alter ego of Lapid. The character flees to Paris without a passport, becomes obsessed with learning French, and befriends Caroline and Emile while absorbing as much as he can about the city.

Yoav’s character changes throughout the film; at first he abhors and rejects his own Israeli culture and language, refusing to speak his native tongue to others, becoming reborn in the French culture. Ironically, he finds a job at the Israeli embassy, though he continues to not speak Hebrew. He balances his time between Caroline and Emile, and the friends he makes through the embassy, such as the hypermasculine Yaron. Closer to the end of the film, Yoav becomes slightly homesick for his language and culture. This change represents the normal immigrant experience, one of culture shock, acceptance, and later one of longing.

While the film itself is not explicitly about sexual desire, it can be seen as a study of repressed sexuality and perhaps even homosexuality. Lapid chose a very masculine and handsome actor to play Yoav and consistently films through the male gaze. Lapid has stated in interviews that the portrayal of Yoav’s body was to show a strong man who had left Israel, not to create sympathy because of his appearance. While this may be the case, it’s an easy argument to make that Yoav’s sexuality had been repressed. There is sexual tension that appears between him and the more apparently gay Emile. Yoav also marries Caroline, but is never happy in the marriage and remains unsatisfied with his life. He becomes a male model and is uncomfortable with some of the poses and actions he’s requested to make, indicating a repression that he wants to overcome. Importantly, he fled Israel to not disappoint his parents, perhaps with his own sexuality; and likewise the French language and state is symbolized and contrasted by Lapid as being much more open than the Hebrew language and Israeli society. And while femininity does not equate to homosexuality, this reading is not one that Lapid suggests for his character because of the autobiographical tone of the film; Lapid is straight, but it is easy to decipher the film as being about this topic.

These ideas of cultural identity are further powered by the audacious performance by Tom Mercier, who had never acted in a film before. Mercier’s appearance and visceral strength empower the film to touch upon identity. Like Lapid, Mercier had never learned French before traveling to Paris and during his time on the film, he learned the language and tried to master it, bringing an authenticity that only the director himself could.

With his nuanced depiction of the relationship to culture and language, Lapid crafted a script that is brilliant and vibrant. Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte both command attention in their supporting performances as Emile and Caroline. Dolmaire brings the tenderness of a character coming to terms with his sexual and personal needs. Importantly, Lapid’s vigorous direction strengthens the themes of the film and creates a sense of urgency regarding the human need to self-identify culturally and sexually.