Synonyms, from its opening sequence set in a Parisian street, is a film of hurtling energy and counter-intuitive rhythms. Yoav (Tom Mercier), a former Israeli Defence Forces soldier, is pacing his way through the city as though he’s on a drill, reaching a gorgeous, cavernous apartment. He finds the spare key and enters, but the apartment is freezing and unfurnished. He showers, and finds his stuff gone. So he runs naked into the stairwell, frantically knocking on doors. His neighbours, a beautiful, bourgeois couple, find him unconscious in the bathtub, and take him in.
From the first time he speaks they notice something unusual about him. He’s clearly not a native French-speaker, he’s learning as he talks, but the version of the language he’s using is allusive, verbose, rich in rhetoric, and highly literary. They learn that Yoav, who refuses to speak Hebrew, has run away from Israel and is trying to forge a new identity for himself (the synonyms of the title are how he tries to immerse himself in his adopted language, as each new connection made linguistically is seemingly a step away from his previous life). He falls in with mysteriously motivated Isreali expats, and begins a tentative flirtation-ship with both parties of the couple who rescued him.
Synonyms has an odd, ambiguous force running through it, at times to its advantage, at times to its detriment. Shai Goldman’s cinematography is frenetic, moving with the idiosyncrasies of its main character, in part seeming almost subjective, until in the same shot the camera will turn and find Voav striding his way through a street. It’s like a free-indirect style of cinema at some points; occasionally this is achieved with aplomb and real flair, but more often it appears like flash for its own sake.
Director Nadav Lapid’s control of the escalation within certain scenes is extraordinary. In particular, a moment in which Voav takes part in a private photoshoot ratchets up the tone to such a surprising plateau that it’s difficult for the rest of the film to operate at such a level. This is a film which is at its best when it’s shouting; when things go quieter, the drama is less substantive, less abrasively fascinating to watch.
There’s a lot to commend in Mercier’s roaring lead performance, including his power over space and speech. He has a blankness to him which is reminiscent of another newcomer performance this year, Adriano Tardiolo’s performance in Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro. But where Rohrwacher has exacting command over the meaning of her film, it seems that Lapid has allowed Synonyms to run away from him at points.
Yoav’s oratorical flights exemplify this most acutely. He tells his fancy neighbours, Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) the oboe player and Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) the writer, all about his life in the army, with such constrictions of narrative, such tightness in the telling. The obsessive story-making aspect in the film contrasts with the film’s narrative itself, which is like a gradual slide rather than an active progression of its participants. The film’s allegorical and political meanings are yawning gaps, so open and so unsuggestive. Is this a critique of the IDF, of his home country? (The film’s support from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport would suggest they did not read it as such.) Is it a critique of that critique? It’s not clear.
A common refrain in Synonyms is Voav’s love for Hector of Troy, the warrior dramatised in Homer’s Iliad. Yoav loved Hector when he was a boy, admiring him more than anyone alive. But his parents did not read him the whole story, of his flight around the walls of Troy, fleeing conflict with Achilles. The import of the allusion is multifaceted, but is given one-dimensional meaning with reference to the final shot, another entry in the classic routine of arthouse non-endings. There’s much to admire in this zippy, funny film, with its barrelling energy — and much to be frustrated by.