Bleak and oblique, Nadiv Lapid’s Synonyms trains us on the most curious of subjects: an attractive man in a mustard overcoat who wanders the streets of Paris muttering an incantation of random words. Some he obsessively conjugates; others trip out of his mouth like a nonsensical nursery rhyme. His voice curls around them precisely, though there is still a residual heaviness in his emphasis—it’s clear this is not his native tongue. At times, his precision exposes him in other ways, like when he chooses words and phrases that are not idiomatic enough to those who listen to him. This man, Yoav, is a quick learner, there is no doubt. But his attempts to ingrain himself in all things French so as to renounce his Israeli heritage entirely are so calculated and superficial that they are bound to backfire. We come to understand it as soon as we meet him, when his clothes and possessions are stolen from him while he showers and he is forced to run around his new apartment building in the nude, freezing cold and begging for help. When no one answers, he goes back to his shower to warm himself—a decision questioned by the couple he befriends the next day, for why not run into the streets and seek help from the police? Why risk freezing to death, instead?
If Yoav is resourceful in some ways, such as learning French word by word, syllable by syllable, it can only take him so far. There is still a naiveté in him about the transient potential of his national identity; his stubborn belief that refusing to speak a word of Hebrew will somehow cleanse him of his Jewish roots, for instance, is naturally ridiculous, and we’re meant to see it that way. It recalls the now outdated theory of the melting pot and the optimism of a unified, assimilated culture within a shared political space. Time and again, experience has proven that complete assimilation from one culture to another is impossible. Your history and experiences cannot float away like birds in a storm. They cannot, as Yoav seems to think, be gifted to your best friend as a basis for a novel and never dealt with again. A type of assimilation can certainly be performed, as Yoav performs what he sees and thinks is normative “Frenchness.” But it is also just that: a performance. It is not based in something true or lasting. Furthermore, the very falsity of the performance—the very effort needed to make it convincing—is psychologically taxing. It can only lead to serious destabilization, and this is what Lapid concentrates on. The slow, alarming decline of this free-spirited, angry, confident ex-soldier who wishes to scrub Israel from every pore of his body, and yet also knows in his heart that it is a molecular connection. Something that, try as he might, he can never expunge.
Synonyms, then, takes on the very essence of Yoav’s character. It’s not linear or logical; it moves freely at Yoav’s pace, which alternates from frenzied to measured. Lapid utilizes a special kind of free indirect discourse to capture his protagonist at full tilt, sometimes filming sequences from Yoav’s POV (particularly when he is out on the streets of Paris, mumbling his cursory French like beat poetry). We are aggressively, incessantly in his sightline, but like Yoav’s cultivated French persona, it is a perceptual trick. The POV does not, in fact, bring us closer to Yoav’s perspective, but instead takes us further back, until we find it hard to know him at all. Until he is as much a stranger to himself as he is to us, barrelling down the streets and boulevards of a country he knows little about, searching for an escape that will forever evade him.
What are the synonyms for tragedy? Misfortune. Woe. Struggle. Calamity. Humiliation. Hardship. Adversity. Words that, like this film, swarm into your consciousness and pick you apart with every rounded vowel and palatal consonant.
Synonyms received its North American premiere at TIFF in the Contemporary World Cinema programme on September 9, 2019.