Rita Di Santo reviews Synonyms by Nadav Lapid, showing at the Seville Film Festival
Seville Festival is a great place to catch up with the best in recent European cinema. Audiences can enjoy prizewinners such as the winner of Berlin’s Golden Bear, Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms.
The film follows an ex-Israeli soldier who rejects his nationality as he moves to France to start a new life. Shaking the boundaries of storytelling, with a sharp sense of humour and a subtle political message, it is a startlingly original anti-war movie that has been deemed controversial, even “scandalous” in Israel and France. The truth is that the film courageously skewers stereotypes from both nations.
Synonyms is loosely based on the Israeli director’s experiences of moving to Paris when he was younger. The film starts with a young man, Yoav, on the streets of a cold and rainy Paris. We follow him into an empty apartment, in a wealthy neighbourhood. After some rest, Yoav takes a bath, but gets robbed of his clothes and rucksack. In vain, he races naked through the building seeking help. Freezing, he returns to the bathtub – a tragi-comic moment – and tries to find some comfort from the hot running water, but the tap stops running, leaving Yoav apparently freezing to death.
The following morning, a rich young couple discover Yoav and take him to their apartment. His body resembles one of the many that we see on the news coverage of refugees. The couple, Emile and Caroline, are intrigued by the presence of this mysterious, handsome, naked young man, who comes back to life and starts talking a bizarre form of French.
Accepting a few gifts from Emile, Yoav goes to live “on the other bank” of the Seine, where he gets by on a few euros a day. Yoav and Emile become friends and their long conversations are extravagant, deep and witty. Yoav uses the French dictionary compulsively, plunging deep into French grammar, structures and synonyms. Refusing to speak a single word of Hebrew – a subtle metaphor for the rejection of Israel’s aggressive, nationalistic politics – he declares the country he left “obscene, ignorant, idiotic, sordid, crude, abominable, repugnant”.
Splendidly acted by Tom Mercier, Yoav is gentle, kind, extremely polite and seductively irresistible, his unique energy deriving from his dignity and the cry for the freedom of new identity. He attracts Emile and Caroline like a magnet, with equal intensity but in different ways. He establishes an emotional-platonic attraction with Emile, and there is an erotic-sensual charge to his relationship with Caroline. Sexually ambiguous, Yoav is the kind of dashing, charismatic, yet strangely withdrawn figure you find in Melville or Godard, an Alain Delon or a Jean-Paul Belmondo.
More burlesque than tragic, the character lives out his contradictions. He rejects a macho culture, but his body is one of a soldier. He is gentle, but forcefully imposes another language on himself. He rejects his past but brings back memories of former life. The movie itself is political, but not politically aligned. It specifically denounces Israeli politics, but its target could be any other country, any nationalistic-aggressive regime.
Yoav moves in his new world with confidence and strength. He dominates his world, not with hard power, but with a soft power of constant dialogue, independence and a challenging attitude. On one hand, It seems to be a movie about the lunacy and odd equilibrium of the powers of modern world; on the other, it is an endorsement of this soft power which envisages the triumph of identity liberation – as Yoav opens the gates of his Embassy to everyone.
Lapid’s directorial style is lucid and confident, using the camera in unconventional ways, making the action move inside the frame, altering the frame, playing with the frame. Sequences are shot in low-key monochrome in homage to the Nouvelle Vague (the French revolutionary style of the sixties). It is the perfect style to express freedom – it is a liberating cinematic experience. The love triangle also recalls Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim.
The playful, elusive style leaves the doors of interpretation open. Maybe this is a dream of a Yoav, following a sleep in the bathtub, or maybe it’s the story of a ghost of a young man, that a rich wealthy family didn’t want to rescue, or they didn’t want to have in their empty flat, but his memories lives upstairs.
Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.