Based on the real-life experiences of writer-director Nadav Lapid (The Kindergarten Teacher), Synonyms is the strange story of a young Israeli man named Yoav (Tom Mercier) who comes to Paris to escape his Israeliness and meets French couple Emile and Caroline who become his best friends and more. You’re never really sure who he is and what he wants, but you’re along for the ride as he walks the streets of Paris memorizing his French vocabulary (particularly synonyms), dancing in his tiny apartment and in streets and clubs, and doing everything he can to shed his former skin.
Yoav’s journey of reinvention begins with his first night in Paris. He’s been given an apartment for the night by someone never named. It’s enormous and in an upscale building, but entirely empty, and it’s cold. He’s totally cocooned in his sleeping bag on the hard floor, but decides to take a shower to warm up. But when he emerges, everything he owns is gone, including the sleeping bag! He rushes naked from the apartment and begins to bang on doors for help, only to be ignored, so he heads back to the bathtub. The next morning a couple from downstairs comes looking for whoever was at their door and finds him frozen and unresponsive in the tub. They take him back to their apartment and warm him up, then dress him in Paris chic clothes and take him under their wing. Emile (Quentin Dolemaire) is an aspiring novelist, and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) is a professional musician. And they take him on as their pet project, providing him with money and a cell phone, and in exchange Yoav gives Emile his stories.
But life in Paris is not easy for Yoav. He lives in a crappy, tiny apartment and subsists on a pasta dish that costs almost nothing. He takes jobs that humiliate. And his Israeliness is hard to escape. A few flashbacks hint that his reasons for leaving are linked to his army experiences, and a visit from his parents begging him to come home don’t change his resolve. He describes his homeland to Emile as “a state that is nasty, obscene, ignorant, idiotic, sordid, fetid, crude, abominable, odious, lamentable, repugnant, detestable, mean-spirited, mean-hearted….”, thanks to his penchant for learning synonyms. And his encounters with fellow Israelis bolster this view of his country.
Mercier is an arresting screen presence as an actor with full control of his physicality. I expect to see a lot more of him, though his naked body is on full display throughout the film. Synonyms isn’t going to be for everyone. It is frequently funny though underneath is a deep subversive anger. But it has loose ends and some of the plot is a bit cryptic. Nevertheless, I do recommend it to lovers of foreign film, immigrant stories, and existentialism.