A struggle to assimilate

Navnee Likhi

Synonyms  is a distinctive film of cinematic craft directed by Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid. The film tells the tale of Yoav, a young Israeli soldier who flees to Paris hoping to get rid of his past. He tries to immerse himself into French lifestyle. Yoav (Tom Mercier) has an obsessive way of carrying a French dictionary with him. The film shows the way society shapes people and how tough it is to shake off one’s own past. For Yoav, Paris is a liberal, tolerant city, unlike the militaristic Israel he belonged to. Yoav wants to experience the fantasy of living a Parisian life while he is fighting his own demons. His national identity, however, keeps stalking him.

The opening scene of the film brings a visual calmness. Yoav is shown striding through the rainy streets of Paris. He heads towards an old building located on the banks of Seine. He takes out a key and opens the door to a large cold apartment, where there is no couch, bed, no furniture of any kind. As Yoav comes out naked after taking a shower, he hears some rustle from the next room. He finds all his personal belongings stolen. He anxiously moves around and slips on the floor. He calls on his neighbours but nobody responds. Returning to his apartment, freezing in winter chill, Yoav passes out in his bathtub. Next morning, he is rescued by a sophisticated bourgeois couple who live downstairs — Emile (Quentin Dolmaire), an aspiring writer, and his girlfriend Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), a sensual, chic musician. They feed him and give him clothes, including a coat which he wears throughout the film. They listen to Yoav’s bizarre stories and also notice his special turn of French phrases. Yoav is a volatile mess of unspent youth, who wants to escape his mind conditioned for war to freedom. He refuses to speak Hebrew to Israelites he meets in Paris and doesn’t reveal the reason that made him flee to Paris. He is a mystery to Emile and Caroline. 

As Emile and Yoav walk through the city, Yoav recites alternate adjectives describing his country, “Nasty, crude, abominable, ignorant and mean-spirited”. His aggressive tone shows his abhorrence for his country. Emile tells them that no country can be all those things at once and says to Yoav, “Choose one.” Yoav walks head down with his hands in his pocket. Emile asks him to look up. But Yoav refuses to acknowledge his surroundings and says to Emile, “Beauty of the city bribes strangers to keep them away from heart of the city where there is neither beauty nor grandeur, nor women”. This is something he has yet to discover, and that too on his own terms.

More scenes follow in the film showing Yoav trying to shed his Israeliness. His father unexpectedly shows up to meet him but Yoav asks him to go away. He has a perfect vision of the city of Paris in his mind but the more he confronts it, the more he finds it difficult to accept. While attending a citizenship class, he is asked, along with other foreigners, to sing the French national anthem Marseillaise, Yoav gets worked up. He realises how complex the lyrics of the song are. Soon he goes for a photoshoot and is not treated well there. His character walks a tightrope between indignity and instability. Caught between two cultures, Yoav begins to act in an erratic way. He rents a shabby apartment and lives on two euros a day, refusing help from Emile. Yoav gets a job at the Israeli Embassy. He is at odds with few of his hot-headed colleagues. Much of Yoav’s anger is conveyed through his physical presence, which never transcends into violence. He speaks Hebrew through gritted teeth. His colleague, an Israeli intelligence agent, Yaron, is the opposite of Yoav. Yaron is of the view that Europe practices anti-Semitism, and Paris is one country which supports it. Whereas Yoav wants to be French, Yaron antagonistically confronts strangers while travelling in a metro. He hums Israeli national anthem in the faces of these strangers. This juxtaposition of French and Israeli sensibilities creates tension in Yoav’s mind. In his office, he slams his body against a locked door, signifying his  inability to escape his heritage.

Caroline is attracted to Yoav. He listens to her. Emile, too, likes him. Yoav tells Emile about his childhood obsession with legendary Trojan figure of Hector and his grandfather’s murky past. He shares his stories as Israeli soldier. Intercut is the scene with flashbacks of his life as a soldier, where he is shown shooting a dummy with his machine gun on rhythm of a French song, and the time when he was awarded a silver medal at a song contest.

Cinematography by Shai Goldman is edgy as well as observational. It points out the conflict in the mind of Yoav — the French national he wants to become and  shed the psychological damage affects his mind. He considers himself an outsider. The story of the film is partly based on director Nadav’s life who as a young man moved from Israel to Paris. Tom Mercier in his debut performance as Yoav is hypnotic. He effortlessly tackles Yoav’s level of physicality and literally immerses into scenes with high level energy. The film is replete with bold scenes. 

Synonyms translates Yoav’s character into portrait of a man who has come this far, only to be judged by people about the background he comes from.

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