It takes Yoav (Tom Mercier), the lead of Nadav Lapid’s new film, Synonyms, all of 10 minutes to arrive at his swanky Parisian Airbnb, strip for a shower, and step out of the tub to find that he’s been robbed blind and naked, with only a workmanlike grasp on French to help him get by. It’s cold. (You can tell by looking at his manhood.)
As he lies freezing in the bathroom, he’s rescued by two good-enough Samaritans living in the same building, Emilie (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevilotte). They carry Yoav to their flat, wrap him up in fur blankets, and bring him back from the brink. “I have nothing anymore,” he tells them, staring up at the ceiling as if watching Heaven’s gates slowly receding from view. Materially, he’s right. In terms of identity, he’s wrong, and Lapid devotes the following 110 minutes of his film to proving as much. Yoav, for his part, is stubborn from head to toe to lip ring, which he removes and gives to Emilie as a gift: His only remaining possession, his way of saying thank you to his savior, his financier, his clothier, and his eventual homoerotic crush.
Synonyms takes its title literally and very, very seriously, though mercifully the film isn’t an especially serious one. One moment, an Israeli man is being dragged through Paris’ streets by the bumper of a black SUV; the next, Yoav’s having a good, delirious time at a nightclub, the evening crescendoing as he and a strange woman tear into bread at either end of the loaf, gyrating and staring into each other’s eyes with feral desire. Whichever mode Synonyms operates in, Lapid presents the viewer with motifs and ideas with overlapping meaning. Yoav carries out the chore on the most basic level, flipping through French language dictionaries to find words that share definitions, but the film finds other synonyms wherever it takes its audience to the Parisian streets.
There’s a risk to Lapid’s approach: Yoav’s clumsy autodidactism makes logical sense, because who doesn’t carry around language guides with them in foreign places where they don’t speak the local lingo, but it also makes the film’s all-encompassing metaphor obvious verging on overdetermined. But just as a joke told too long morphs from funny to unfunny and then back to funny again, Synonyms’ metaphor is sustained so thoroughly over its duration that the overdetermination morphs into the overwhelming realization that virtually everything in all of human existence becomes synonymous with anything else, given the proper framing: Style with outsidership, modeling with pornography, isolation with autonomy, identity with violence, with grief, with spiritual desolation.
Selfhood is Lapid’s chief concern. It’s Yoav’s impetus for abandoning his country for another. He has valid justifications for his exodus; Israel, as he describes it, is an odious nation, one synonym among many in his arsenal for excoriating his birthplace. (“No country is all that at once,” Emilie gently tells him after entertaining Yoav’s fiery tirade. “Choose.”). But Yoav recklessly believes he can cash in his old nationality for a shiny new one to solve his worldly woes, change who he is, where he comes from, and better himself in so doing. Synonyms, in its hyperkinetic and eccentric fashion, argues that trading one’s national identity simply means trading one problem for others; every national identity, either within or without, has its own unique and inescapable baggage.
It’s enough to make a man mad, and so it goes for Yoav. Lapid articulates Yoav’s increasingly fevered quest for the impossible through aesthetic fluidity: Whip pans and judicious use of saturated colors, couched foremost in the mustard-yellow, knee-length coat Emilie plucks from his wardrobe for Yoav at the beginning of the movie. It all reflects the movie’s rich and assertive style, a detached cool to hold the audience at the proper distance from Lapid’s narrative. Then the slickness vanishes, replaced by frantic, handheld camera techniques, putting us on Yoav’s level as he wanders Paris in search of himself. All he finds is rejection. That’s Synonyms’ great tragicomic epiphany: No matter how different they sound or seem, words and identities are all ultimately the same.
Director: Nadav Lapid
Writer: Nadav Lapid, Haim Lapid
Starring: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Uria Hayik, Olivier Loustau, Yehuda Almagor
Release Date: October 22 (NY/LA); November 8 (Boston expansion)
Bostonian culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.