‘Synonyms’ Review – Searching for Self Definition / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


Nadav Lapid’s third feature Synonyms is a cinematic triumph that defies easy categorization. It blurs the line between manic hallucination and semi-autobiographical reality, combining raw emotional power with a surreal narrative that challenges conventional storytelling. Released in 2019, this French-Israeli drama is an exploration of one man’s quest to shed his past and redefine himself in a foreign land. With a unique blend of surrealism, dark humor, and poignant storytelling, Lapid crafts a narrative that lingers in the mind long after the credits roll.

At the heart of Synonyms lies a profound exploration of identity. Yoav, brilliantly portrayed by Tom Mercier, is a young Israeli man who arrives in Paris with a fierce determination to rid himself of his homeland and everything it represents. Clad only in a pair of shoes and a backpack, Yoav’s vulnerability is palpable from the very beginning. He promptly abandons his Israeli identity, his clothes, his language, and even his religion, immersing himself in the French language and culture. Yoav’s transformation is visceral and disorienting; he strips off his clothes in the empty apartment he has broken into, shivering and vulnerable. This act of shedding is a desperate attempt to escape the weight of his nation’s history, his military service, and its associated trauma.

Lapid artfully employs the concept of synonyms as a recurring motif. Yoav’s linguistic fixation with the French language leads him to carry around a pocket thesaurus, searching for the perfect synonyms to express himself with. His journey of self-discovery unfolds as an intricate performance in itself: he adopts the speech, gait, and mannerisms of a Frenchman, pushing himself to extremes, from reciting poetry in public to engaging in bizarre dance routines. Mercier’s raw physicality and charisma immerse us in Yoav’s tumultuous world, causing us to simultaneously empathize with and cringe at his choices.

Performance also takes on a political dimension in Synonyms. Yoav’s encounters with characters like Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louis Chevillotte) highlight the way national identity is often a performance, influenced by societal expectations and prejudices. Emile, a wealthy Frenchman who takes Yoav under his wing, is both fascinated and disturbed by Yoav’s Israeli background, treating it as a kind of exotic novelty. Caroline, Emile’s lover and a Holocaust researcher, represents a different facet of French society’s relationship with history and identity; her fixation on Yoav’s background forces him to confront his own past and the collective trauma of his people.

Lapid’s approach to storytelling in Synonyms is unconventional. The film unfolds in a series of episodic, disjointed scenes that mimic Yoav’s fragmented sense of self, often blurring the line between reality and hallucination. One particularly surreal sequence involves Yoav running naked through the streets of Paris. It’s a testament to Lapid’s skill as a director that he can make such a scene simultaneously discomforting and beautiful, forcing us to question the boundaries of social norms and personal expression.

Beneath its unhinged surface, Yoav’s journey to reinvent himself in a foreign land mirrors the struggles of immigrants everywhere, who often face the dilemma of assimilating into a new culture while preserving their roots. The film delves into this tension, whether it be through French society’s perception of Israelis or Yoav’s own idealized image of a Frenchman.

In a world where the struggle for identity is a universal experience, Synonyms serves as a poignant reminder that the quest for self-discovery is not a linear or painless process. It invites us to question the role of national identity and the expectations of societal norms in shaping who we are. And it ultimately challenges us to confront the complexities of our own identities and to appreciate the beauty in vulnerability, as we all navigate the tumultuous terrain of selfhood.

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