Lost in Translation: Lapid Languishes in Enigmatic, Complex Study on Cultural Identities
The rejection of self and the adoption of persona are prominent themes pouring from the near-inscrutable heart of Nadav Lapid’s accomplished third feature, Synonyms, which purportedly navigates certain autobiographical experiences of the Israeli director’s first experiences in Paris. Like the linguistic version of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), the focus is a troubled protagonist as a stranger in a strange land, at the center of a potential love triangle fashioned by circumstances which become increasingly troubling. Sinister political ideations are an underlining force in Lapid’s freewheeling and episodic narrative, which may leave many inclined to frustration thanks to the level of cultural subtexts and literal translation impediments which might make the film more meaningful to audiences familiar with certain stereotypes informing the specific relationships.
Absconding for unknown reasons from Israel, Yoav (Tom Mercier) makes his way to an empty Parisian flat. There’s a key, but whoever or whatever he was hoping to find may have left long ago. Waking in the freezing space, he takes a shower only to have his backpack containing his belongings stolen out from under him. Luckily, his downstairs neighbors Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) take an immediate interest in the man after finding him unconscious in his bathtub. Reviving him and providing him with a wardrobe, a curious slew of interactions cements their friendship—Yoav is in need of a trustworthy friend and the French couple is searching to revive their emotional stagnation. Slowly, we begin to discover Yoav is running away from himself, refusing to speak Hebrew and obsessed with memorizing the French dictionary he carries with him.
A complex and playful debut performance from Tom Mercier will likely be what Synonyms is initially heralded for. Arriving in Paris under mysterious circumstances, he’s introduced naked then nearly dead—we’re told freezing to near-death is an experience shared by several family members. His increasingly agitated psychological distress is reflected in Shai Goldman’s cinematography, which bounces between sublime reflections of the eternal city to frenetic jostling interiors, potentially a reflection of its anxious protagonist—perhaps best captured in a moment wherein the hapless vagabond saunters into a chic restaurant to nip some scraps of food only to become trampled by a group of eager dancers when Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” suddenly sparks an impromptu dance party. Language, obviously, is at the crux of what’s defined as the stepping stone into Yoav’s new cultural identity. Constantly, his memorization of his travel dictionary is cause for amusement, using grammatically correct words and phrases which aren’t part of casual lingo.
Introduced in a sequence where he’s robbed of all his belongings, Yoav’s French re-birth (or baptism, even, in this sterile womb) finds him embracing his French saviors by willingly divorcing himself from his last vestige (a lip ring) as a sign of gratitude for the help he receives from Emile and Caroline, further reflected by Yoav “giving” his stories to Emile to use as his own fodder for story writing (and provides Yoav with what he needs to ‘reclaim’ for himself later on). Thus begins a series of Yoav’s objectification by the French, with the elitist young couple representative of a class and culture bored to tears with itself and hungry to cling to something new and interesting without caring to examine what makes it (in this case, Yoav) tick. Of course, this leads to a breaking point for Yoav when, at the hands of an eccentric pornographer, he’s forced into using the language he had vowed never to use again, jolting him back into the uncomfortable headspace he’s so desperately trying to escape.
The nuances of Yoav’s cultural abandonment are never clearly spelled out, but Lapid’s specific political references (including behaviors at the Israeli Embassy) suggest a landmine of subversity. An oft-referenced Hector from Homer’s The Iliad also brings in classic comparisons to the infamous war between Sparta and Athens, two cultures whose conflict defined a cornerstone of Western literature. Tellingly, Yoav’s parents never read him the ending, suggesting he only knows of conflict and not its resolution.
Where Synonyms might border on incomprehensible is with its treatment of the foppish Emile, a character defined more by body language, his intense yearning for intimacy with Yoav suggesting more than a mere wish to use his foreign friend as an intellectual cipher (“Boredom gives me structure,” he quips when one of Yoav’s stories bores Caroline). Quentin Dolmaire (of Desplechin’s My Golden Days ,2015) has the benefit of being the more unpredictable force, considering his apparent obsession with Yoav, while Louise Chevillotte fulfills the more predictable aspects of this scenario, who also satisfies her own curiosities with Yoav.
Crushed between cultural variations which both oppress his will, both intentionally and unintentionally, Yoav is left in another difficult transition, forced to move on from the false refuge of Caroline and Emile and revisit the emotional trauma he was fleeing. And whatever the frustrations with Lapid’s challenging presentation, Tom Mercier succeeds in a dynamic dance between madness and charisma in a film which is curiously as bittersweet as it is alarming. In the end, as its title indicates, Synonyms, though it addresses two specific cultures, is really about the universal duality of objectification, whether it be to serve the needs of an individual (France) or the masses/State (Israel).
Reviewed on February 13th at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. Competition. 123 Mins.