Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, who did the much-praised “The Kindergarten Teacher,” has now come up with “Synonyms,” on the slate at the recent 57th New York Film Festival in advance of its commercial release here. Reportedly Lapid’s leading character in the new film reflects some of his own experiences in having temporarily left Israel for Paris. If so he shouldn’t brag about it.
“Synonyms,” with a screenplay by Lapid and Haim Lapid, focuses on Yoav (played by the interesting actor Tom Mercier), who is obnoxious and a psychological mess. He abandons Israel, where he served in the army, and, determined never to return, he tries to establish himself in Paris. He doesn’t even want to speak Hebrew anymore, and as he learns French, the director, with some clever wordplay, uses the idea of synonyms, with Yoav searching for how many words in French he can find to denounce Israel.
Yoav crashes in an apartment he manages to get into, and he awakens to find his belongings stolen. A French couple, Emile, a would-be writer played by Quentin Dolmaire, and Caroline, a musician portrayed by Louise Chevillotte, come to his rescue. We follow Yoav’s frenetic experiences, including getting a security job at the Israeli consulate, an odd choice given his anti-Israel bias. One interesting aspect there is the portrayal of a volatile Israel intelligence agent, Yaron (Uria Havik), who denounces the anti-Semitism he sees everywhere.
In another sequence Yoav takes a modeling job that turns out to be a demeaning part in a porn shoot. By the way, there as elsewhere we see Mercier as Yoav in frontal nudity. (P.S. He’s well endowed.)
Yoav clearly needs psychological help to pull him out of the alienation he consistently feels and the desperation that develops as the plot evolves. Mercier is a dynamic actor with plenty of charisma, and I would like to see him in future roles. But the character of Yoav is more annoying than intriguing. At one point his father (Yehuda Almagor) comes from Israel to plead with him to return home, but Yoav treats him coldly.`
“Synonyms” has received praise, I must report, including winning the Golden Bear award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The film does contain creative cinematography, smart remarks, sensuality, the impression made by leading man Mercier and lively scenes reflecting Yoav’s adventures as he struggles in vain to become Parisian. Perhaps those elements are what entice and impress fans of the film.
But as “Synonyms” progressed when I saw it, I had my fill of Yoav, lacked any sympathy for him and felt that Israel should be glad to get rid of him. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed October 21, 2019.