In our era of resurging fascism, Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid (and co-writer Haim Lapid) gives us Synonyms (Synonymes 2019), a primarily French film about the fascist prostitution of national identity. It’s an anti-bildungsroman, in which the protagonist starts off not knowing what he wants, and ends with the realization that what we wants can’t be found.
Tom Mercier delivers a physical and fully embodied performance as Yoav, a young Israeli man run off to Paris, vowing never to return or even speak Hebrew. The first sequence of the film contrives to deprive him of everything except (barely) his life, whence he’s rescued by Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte). This couple is the epitome of the French bourgeoisie, living in a lavish apartment paid for by Emile’s rich father, whiling away the days writing pretentiously purple literary prose (Emile) or practicing the oboe for an upcoming orchestral performance (Caroline). Both are always elegantly attired, and Emile’s multilayered winter raiment contrasts strongly with Yoav’s tank-top and overcoat ensemble.
Yoav has escaped Israel in disgust at its culture of toxic militant masculinity (the film was funded by the Israeli Ministry of Culture—I’m assuming they didn’t read the script), and Emile is the exact opposite: cultured, refined, handsome, and a bisexual more gay than straight. Yoav spends his days working security at the Israeli embassy, the only job that he can find as a sans-papiers, and his nights telling anecdotes from his life and family to Emile and Caroline, most of which recount absurd situations involving the military. The narrative here, like Yoav’s daily life, is impressionistically structured, and scenes of Yoav walking the streets are shot on shaky handheld, making his surroundings a disorienting blur.
When he’s alone, Yoav recites vocabulary words to himself, grouping them by synonym and assonance. When telling his stories, he often uses five adjectives when one would suffice. The first level of the title thus refers to Yoav’s inability to express himself accurately, a sign of his cultural otherness. The typically taciturn and withdrawn Yoav is only energized when, either unobserved alone at home or lost in the crowd of a dance floor, he lets loose his physicality and bounces around the place, limbs flailing, releasing the negative energy generated by confinement in the prism of an inadequate language.
Given Yoav’s ideology, he inevitably loses his embassy job—where the culture is such that the head of security (Olivier Loustau) organizes weekly street fights with neo-Nazis—and advertises his sculpted military physique for modeling gigs. He gets one: a pornographer who asks him to do degrading things to himself (in a single uncensored long take) and speak in Hebrew, too, “for the sound of it.” Markedly, this scene of self-alienation is the only time we hear Yoav speak in Hebrew. It’s not he who speaks, but the semitic man crafted by the pornographer into an object of desire. A similar vibe is given off by another scene, a flashback to when Yoav won a military decoration and, during the ceremony, two showgirls in military uniform sing and sashay to “Hallelujah La’Olam,” the 1979 Eurovision winner. The religious significance of the Hebrew language is hard to ignore here.
Though Emile is attracted to Yoav, it’s Caroline who seduces him; some critics have called the role of Caroline underwritten, but she’s exactly what she needs to be to fulfill the stereotypical ideal of a French woman: young, pretty, cultured, and sexually voracious (the latter according to Emile). When Emile proposes that Yoav and Caroline marry to give Yoav citizenship, the newly affianced couple hug in joy after Emile leaves, and the one-time use of handheld DV (by cinematographer Shai Goldman) marks this as the only time in the whole film that Yoav feels unreserved joy.
His joy is cut short by his citizenship integration class, where he’s forced to memorize various useless factoids such as the list of Fifth Republic presidents, learn the bloodthirsty lyrics to “La Marseillaise,” and answer a series of true-or-false questions on such demeaning topics such as whether it’s okay to kill your wife for infidelity (it’s not). To escape one fascistically militant culture he has apparently stumbled into another, albeit this one’s buried under layers of cultural refinement. But as the baseline for citizenship, French militancy is positioned as the foundation of all that culture, and its role as undisclosed bedrock makes it all the worse. Yoav’s unmoored-again identity offers a second understanding of the film’s title: The “family resemblances” that unite synonyms to each other revolve around an ineffable center, as do Yoav’s two national identities.
Enraged by this revelation, Yoav vocally goes berserk on Caroline during the intermission of her orchestra’s performance, but instead of engaging him the orchestra drowns him out with the sounds of practice. Caroline gives him one last, long look before going back out on stage, a look fraught with irony in that, though she pities him for being unworthy of Frenchness, it’s she who’s blind to the violence of being French.
The final shot, of Yoav trying to break down Emile and Caroline’s door, is obviously symbolic of his need (and sense that, with his newly acquired wisdom, he’s entitled) to enter into French national culture, or any national culture really. If the utopian ideal of the film is Yoav shouting “There are no more borders!” (which is what gets him fired from the embassy), the inescapable reality is another line, uttered when Yoav takes the rights to his anecdotes back from Emile: “They’re not much, but they’re mine.” We’re all rooted in one place or another, but what if that place is a no-man’s land?