There is something wrong with Yoav. His identity crisis is so profound that it has become an extension of his personality. Nervy and erratic, he is unpredictable because he is so ill at ease. Synonyms, a French drama from Israeli director Nadav Lapid, is an attempt to make sense of what ails Yoav. The film is deeply allegorical, with his arc serving as a stand-in for the sort of anxiety that many young Israelis must face. Parts of it are exhilarating, and yet it reveals depths of pain and sadness as it continues. Most of us take our nationality for granted, so it is bracing to see a film about what nationality really means.
When we first meet Yoav (Tom Mercier), he is wandering the streets of Paris. He crashes in an abandoned house – he is squatting – and when he returns from a bath, all his belongings are missing. Desperate and naked, he finds comfort in Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), who live in the apartment next door. Urbane and wealthy, Emile gives Yoav clothes, money, and everything he needs to start a new life. They become fast friends. Sure, Yoav is a little strange, but he is passionate and eager to learn. The film takes its title from the French dictionary Yoav purchases. He is challenging himself to learn as much French as he can, enumerating all the words that fit any given situation. Yoav refuses to speak Hebrew.
Mercier’s performance is the announcement of a new talent. Like Ryan Gosling in The Believer or Tom Hardy in Bronson, Mercier is full of quirky rage (Mercier also looks so much like Hardy he could be his brother). You never quite know how a scene will unfold precisely because Yoav is experimenting constnatly. This is what makes Synonyms so compulsively watchable: Lapid follows Yoav eagerly, his camera whirling around the room as if he does not know where Yoav will move next. Parts of the film are like a cinéma vérité documentary, while others have the nerve and stylized movement you might expect from Gaspar Noé. By the time Yoav’s father shows up, in a half-hearted attempt to intervene with his new life, the shift to a more traditional drama shows just how much Mercier and Lapid accomplish.
The key scenes in Synonyms involve people trying to coax Yoav’s Israeli tendencies out of him. There is a disturbing, protracted sequence where Yoav poses for erotic photos. How it ends – and what Yoav says at its conclusion – are the first true insight into what he feels. In this film, Emile represents the promise of a sophisticated European identity. Yoav even says, “You know no idea how lucky you are to be French.” There are flashbacks to Yoav’s past, and a suggestion that being born an Israeli is a kind of original sin. Synonyms ends like it begins, with Yoav alone in an apartment building. He has gone through so much, turning his life inside out and rebelling against the inherent inequalities of modern Israeli life, and yet he cannot have what he so desperately wants.
This film is not anti-Israel, exactly, simply because Yoav’s eccentricity does not represent the country as a whole. It is, however, against blind allegiances. It makes for the kind of coming-of-age film that should resonate with anyone who understood the concept of The Establishment long before they could do anything about it.