Nadav Lapid is a writer-director who has made a career out of poking the “race-class-power” hive in his native Israel. That’s a risky pursuit even in the calmest of times, but nothing we’ve seen by the filmmaker prepares us for the sheer lucidity of his Synonyms, one of the most penetrating “cross-cultural” dramas imaginable, as well as one of the finest films of 2019.
The action swirls around Yoav, a young Israeli army veteran (sabra actor Tom Mercier) just arrived in contemporary Paris with a chip on his shoulder the size of Tel Aviv. He’s fed up with his country, his family, the constant warfare, etc., and now wants nothing more than to melt into the strange (for him) but enticing cultural mélange that is France. But the mere wish to become French is easier said than done.
Yoav’s Paris experience gets off to a rocky start when, after coming to the empty apartment of a friend, he emerges from the shower to discover all his possessions — clothes, cash, passport — stolen by a sneak thief. The only neighbors to open their door to the naked Yoav are Émile (Quentin Dolmaire), a misty-eyed poet, and his sympathetic girlfriend Caroline (Louise Chevilotte), who give the dazed out-of-towner some clothes and walking-around money, just before our guy checks into a tiny, depressing room that features a hole in the wall through which he can see the sky.
And so Yoav mopes around in his borrowed mustard-colored overcoat — acting screwy, subsisting on cheap noodles, and encountering a laundry list of dubious acquaintances. He makes every wrong move a foreigner can. But for romantic art-house audiences the athletic Yoav has look of the young Jean-Paul Belmondo in a nouvelle vague conception of city life. So there’s that in his favor. The wavy handheld camera also suits the mood. Can he ever hope to fit in?
The people he meets go right to the heart of 21st-century restlessness and displacement, Euro-style: Yaron the combative Israeli, trying to pick a fight on the Metro with a yarmulke on his head; the schnook who hires Yoav for a porn video with a Palestinian woman costar; and the Israeli Embassy tough guy whose idea of fun is fighting pitched battles with French neo-nazis. But the crux of the situation emerges in the government citizenship class, whose teacher delivers an icy call to arms on the subject of religion, or in this case the official French attitude toward it, “God does not exist.”
Combined with filmmaker Lapid’s breezy visual style, Yoav’s bewilderment with his new home deposits us in a rare zone of uncertainty that few films manage with such absolute assurance. That uncertainty is curiously bracing. We worry about Yoav, yet we also find ourselves cheering for him. Synonyms is not an easy film, but it’s worth it.