Yoav (Tom Mercier) is speed-walking down the rainy streets of Paris, past cafes and cars and people reading newspapers; he’s moving so fast that the camera can barely keep up with him. Once he finds the apartment he’s going to crash in —and the key to the front door under the mat — the twentysomething Israeli makes himself at home. Halfway through some interrupted mid-shower onanism, Yoav runs into the bare living room, slips on the hardwood floor…and finds that everything from his clothes to his sleeping bag has just been stolen. He’s penniless, possession-less and all alone. Welcome to France.
The next morning, his downstairs neighbors Emile (Quentin Dolemaire), an aspiring novelist, and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), a professional musician, find Yoav naked, shivering and unconscious in his flat. These bougie-bohemian millennials give him clothes, cash, a cell phone and a mustard-colored overcoat. He hits the streets, haunting bookstores for French dictionaries and unleashing a barrage of adjectives on everyone he meets, all the better to take his new, adopted language out for a spin. Yoav is relocating to the City of Lights because he a massive bone to pick with the nation of his birth. Specifically, he’s not crazy about the military mindset that this ex-soldier thinks has curdled the country’s culture at large and scarred him specifically. “I moved to France to flee Israel,” Yoav tells Emile, because the latter is “a state that is nasty, obscene, ignorant, idiotic, sordid, fetid, crude, abominable, odious, lamentable, repugnant, detestable, mean-spirited, mean-hearted….” “No country is all that at once,” the writer replies. “Choose.”
Slightly autobiographical — and definitely the sort of full-throated cri de couer that comes from a deep well of rage — this award-winning portrait of an ex-pat from Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid conjures the freedom of beginning a new life when you’re young, handsome and able to consist on little more than spaghetti, tomato sauce and chips. (Yoav can recite the exact measurements of the meal and prices of its ingredients at will. He’s like a walking encyclopedia of Franco-ephemera.) Plus it benefits from having a lead that leans into his role 110-percent; you’d be hard-pressed to think of a more perfect introduction to Mercier’s brooding, brutish screen presence. With his long pugilist’s mug and lean, muscular physique, this Israeli dancer and former Judo champion looks so much like a Breathless-era Jean-Paul Belmondo at times that you keep waiting for him to drag his thumb across his lip. He’s a dynamic performer even when he’s just standing there, eyes nervously darting back and forth. Give the 26-year-old actor the chance to flail around to music in his room, or seduce a clubgoer with a loaf of bread, or turn a skeezy model shoot into a cringe-comic set piece, and watch how Mercier gives off serious movie-star wattage. It’s a showcase.
But Synonyms is also a critique of a country — hint: not France — that suggests a citizenship weaned on perpetual life-during-wartime alert might be slightly traumatized. Lapid has taken his homeland to task before, via cop procedurals (the criminally underseen Policeman) and tweaked movie-of-the-week–style melodramas (The Kindergarten Teacher). This poisson-out-of-water character study feels a lot more personal; it’s also a lot more pointed. You do not put in a character like Uria Hayik’s Jewish zealot, who aggressively sings “Hatikvah” in an Arabic man’s face on the metro, or include a scene at Israel’s embassy in France that echoes encounters at West Bank checkpoints, without wanting to ruffle an aviary’s worth of feathers. It’s an angry movie. A smart-ass might also proceed to call Synonyms enraged, antagonistic, furious, apoplectic and seething, but luckily for you, we would not stoop to something that gimmicky.
Yet it’s an exhilarating and profoundly sorrowful work as well, especially once Yoav begins to realize that you can take the man out of his home country but you can’t take the home country out of the man. Nationalism is part of our protagonist’s DNA whether he cares to admit or not, and to see him lead his fellow naturalization classmates in a manic “La Marseillaise” or berate an orchestra for not being passionate enough is to recognize that you’re observing a tragedy. The movie ends with a scene of a man throwing himself violently against a closed door, unable to enter and equally unable to move forward. Plus ça change….