The French have a word for it

Synonyms sharply divided audiences in Berlin, some of whom thought it was sublime, but many of whom considered it tedious and pretentious.

A SCENE from ‘Synonyms.’ (photo credit: GUY FERRANDIS/SBS FILMS)
A SCENE from ‘Synonyms.’
Hebrew title: Milim Nifradot
With Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte
In French and Hebrew, check with theaters for subtitle information 2 hours, 3 minutes
Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, which won the Golden Bear, the top award, at the recently concluded Berlin International Film Festival, is the first Israeli film to win the main prize at a major international film festival in many years.
In spite of its win, it sharply divided audiences in Berlin, some of whom thought it was sublime, but many of whom considered it tedious and pretentious.
Lapid is an extraordinarily successful director, whose first feature, Policeman (2011), was the rare Israeli film included in the New York Film Festival. His second movie, The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), was recently remade in English with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the lead.
Synonyms is a meandering homage to the early and middle-period films of Jean-Luc Godard, which it often recreates visually, about Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli man, who goes to Paris not long after finishing his military service, which apparently traumatized him, to construct a new identity for himself as a Frenchman. He sees Paris with the romance of earlier generations, and although it is set in the present day, the movie has the feel of another era, when the Paris made famous by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast lured scores of sensitive, literary young people.
In an arresting opening sequence, he lets himself into an empty apartment in a gorgeous old building, strips and gets into the bathtub, then hears the door shut and realizes someone has stolen his few possessions. Nude, he runs out of the apartment to give chase, then gives up and comes back to the apparently freezing flat, where he passes out.
He is rescued by two upper-class young neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte, who is made up and photographed to resemble a Godard heroine and bears a resemblance to one of that director’s favorite actresses, Anna Karina).
These two rich, idle Parisians, who are always dressed in the best, most understated taste, adopt Yoav, who alternates between embracing them and ignoring or insulting them. Abandoning the spectacular apartment, he moves to a tiny, rundown place and gets the only job he can find, doing security for Israelis. Living on the cheapest food he can buy, he spends every available moment trying to become a Frenchman, obsessively studying the language, which he actually speaks very well.
Inevitably, through his security work, he finds himself connected to Israel through the other security guards he meets, who represent the sickest, most mindlessly macho and obnoxious Israelis ever put on film. If a non-Jew had dared to do this, it would be condemned as one of the most antisemitic portrayals in modern times. It verges on parody and apparently is meant to symbolize Yoav’s hatred for his homeland.
Eventually, Yoav and Caroline marry, and Yoav becomes as disenchanted with the French as he is with his own nationality, after he attends some citizenship classes with a jingoistic teacher. It turns out the lyrics to “La Marseillaise” are just as gruesome as anything Israeli.
There are a few set pieces that people will remember – such as a very coldly filmed, borderline porn scene where Yoav poses nude for a director who asks him to scream in Hebrew – but in spite of these moments, the film feels much longer than its running time of just over two hours.
This is one of those very slow, loosely plotted movies that shame critics who don’t want to admit they were bored into using all kinds of other phrases to describe the pacing, which is ironic, since the title is “Synonyms.” I was convinced the movie would end about four times before it actually did, a sure sign I wasn’t engaged by the story.
Mercier, who is in virtually every frame, gives an extraordinary performance in his film debut. He manages to show the vulnerability in this very young character, and to make his conflicting impulses and his flirtation with psychosis much more touching than they might otherwise have been.
Synonyms captures the intensity of 20-somethings who long to lose themselves in strolls alongside the Seine, but instead of illuminating this identity crisis, the film falls back into clichés and dissolves into tasteful real-estate porn.