Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Young, Handsome, Brawny" Ex-Soldier Trades Israel for France in Nadal Lavid's Synonyms

Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) with Yoav (Tom Mercier)
SYNONYMS / Synonymes
(Nadal Lavid, France, Israel, Germany, 2019, 123 minutes)

"Male, young, handsome, brawny. Happy to serve as artist’s model."
--Yoav's job posting

Israeli director Nadal Lavid (The Kindergarten Teacher) wastes no time in plunging his protagonist into a nightmarish situation. It's the kind many people are likely to dream about, but few will actually experience.

Yoav (Tom Mercier, equally engaging in stillness as in motion) has just arrived in Paris from Tel Aviv. For his first move, he sets himself up in a large, empty, unheated apartment. Some unknown benefactor left him a key. On his first night, he takes a shower. After he leaves the tub, he's horrified to find that his clothes are gone. He knocks on several doors while completely nude, but no one responds. The next day, neighbors Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) and Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) find him passed out in the tub, so they carry him up to their apartment, nurse him back to consciousness, and set him up with clothes and toiletries. (Since Lavid never resolves the mystery, it's suggested that the duo took Yoav's clothes and ignored his knocking before checking in on him the next day.)

Yoav proceeds to walk the streets wearing a woman’s long, gold coat. It's strangely flattering. While he walks, he mutters synonyms to himself in French, never in Hebrew. His vocabulary is very good, so it's clear that he's been studying for a while. He wants to be able to say all the words.

Yoav and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte)
It seems fitting that this language-obsessed traveler would find common ground with a writer. When he reconnects with Emile, the aspiring novelist asks him what he plans to do. "I'll be French," says Yoav. "That’s not enough," cautions Emile. Yoav begs to differ, and that's pretty much the theme of the film. He soon finds work as a security guard at the Israeli embassy, possibly due to his military background, though he also runs an ad offering his services as an artist's model. As the opening scene attests, neither Mercier nor Yoav has any problem with nudity. For my money, he looks a lot like a not-especially-buff Tom Hardy, though I don't recall Hardy being quite so casual about disrobing on film.

Yoav continues to hang out with the couple. It isn't clear if they're brother and sister or boyfriend and girlfriend, and they only encourage the confusion, which seems designed to disorient the audience as much as Yoav, whose sexual orientation also takes a while to come into focus. The ambiguity allows Lavid to establish sexual tension between the three that could find release in any direction. Then, Yoav's friend, Yaron (Uria Hayik), comes to town, and he divides his time between the boorish Israeli and the refined French duo. Yaron has come to Paris "to save the Jews," which means telling everyone he meets that he's Jewish, wearing a yarmulke, and singing the Israeli national anthem into the faces of subway passengers.

It's a relief when Yaron disappears from the scene, though his discomforting presence helps to explain what Yoav is eager to leave behind. It's not so much that he hates Israel, but that he hates the macho, militaristic side of the country. With Yaron gone, the film threatens to segue into a modern-day updating of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, which featured almost as much male nudity, except Lavid has different concerns in mind.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe
Yoav spends the rest of the film trying to make a living, to fend off his parents, to navigate his relationship with Emile and Caroline, and to maintain his dignity, which takes a nosedive when he poses for a photographer who seems interested in him/his body, but mostly seeks to exploit his nationality, the very thing he's trying to escape. During a session in which the photographer gets him to speak in Hebrew, Yoav realizes how much he's seen--and even fetishized--as different or other. Though Emile tells him, "Giving up your language kills part of yourself," that's precisely what he's trying to do. It's what his grandfather did when he traded Lithuanian for Hebrew. In a way, he's just carrying on the family legacy.

The strain eventually erodes his composure, and what had initially seemed like amusing quirks segue into signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Or maybe it's that he's finding his true self by trying on a cultural suit that doesn't fit. A rigid citizenship course only adds to his doubts about France.

At first glance, I was frustrated by the decision he makes to resolve his dilemma, but in retrospect, I'm not so sure he had any other choice. In the end, Synonyms, which draws from the filmmaker's own experiences with France, isn't a tragedy, but it's hardly a comedy either. It's more like a love story between a man and a country--two countries, really--that don't love him the way he wants to be loved...but why should France love him when he doesn't even love himself? Yoav's final move indicates that he just might be making steps in that direction, and that's what I'd call a happy ending.

All images from Kino Lorber. There are no further show times for Synonyms in Seattle, but it's still making its way across the country. For more information, please click here. For streaming, click here

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Adam Driver Brings His Superhuman Focus to Scott Z. Burns' Directorial Debut, The Report

Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones
(Scott Z. Burns, USA, 2019, 118 minutes)

After watching The Report, I read Katherine Eban's "Rorschach and Awe," the 2007 Vanity Fair article that inspired Scott Z. Burns' new docudrama. The filmmaker has personalized the story by honing in on one individual, Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), the senatorial staffer who helped to bring the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program to light, but the article and the film are two entirely different things--to the extent that Eban never even mentions Jones. If you're interested in psychology, the former is where it's at; if you're interested in one-guy-against-the-system thrillers, like Michael Mann's The Insider (which also drew from a Vanity Fair article), the film is more likely to meet your needs.

That isn't a knock against The Report, which is definitely worth seeing, but it hits familiar--if welcome--beats along the way, while the article presents a far thornier reality. For instance, Burns makes little mention of the armed services-aligned psychologists who formed a task force to assist the CIA in the wake of 9/11. Through their $80 million contract, they led the agency to believe that enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) would best elicit intelligence from detainees, except they don't. The "rapport-building approach," as Eban terms it, does. Historically speaking, humane treatment provides the most reliable results, whereas EIT is a great way to get detainees to say literally anything to make the torture stop.

Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein
If George W. Bush and his Cabinet are bad guys for encouraging and defending EIT--and they are--so is the American Psychological Association (APA) for participating in the sham.

In order to neutralize the politics of the situation, Burns downplays Bush's involvement, while casting CIA Director John Brennan (an excellent Ted Levine, whose participation is deviously perfect in light of his role as a serial killer in Silence of the Lambs) as the primary villain. It works dramatically, in part because Bush has become an over-familiar presence in movies and TV shows, from Oliver Stone's W. to That’s My Bush, but I wonder if Burns would have tread so lightly if Bush wasn't still with us, painting terrible portraits of dogs and laughing it up with Ellen DeGeneres and the Obamas.

If Burns takes care to note the parts Condeleezza Rice and Dick Cheney played in promoting EIT as a geopolitical good, he keeps the focus on his lesser known protagonist at all times, sketching in his background with the broadest of strokes. All we really know about Jones is that he's a relentless workaholic. In the film's early stages, he assembles a team, including April (Barry's Sarah Goldberg) and Sean (Alexander Chaplin), to uncover as many details as possible about the EIT program. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) provides the resources they need, but as the years grind on, Jones's colleagues move on to other, less emotionally draining projects, while the single, childless staffer forges on, largely on his own.

Steven Soderbergh, who worked with Burns on The Informant! and The Laundromat among other films, produced The Report, and in the press notes, the writer-director compares Jones to the star of Soderbergh's Erin Brokovich. Like that film, his never attempts to mimic a documentary, the mode of many recent handheld docudramas. It is, unabashedly, a movie, making it a throwback to the days of Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men. Burns even stages scenes in under-lit garages in which Jones has secret meetings with a physician (Tim Blake Nelson) and a reporter (Matthew Rhys). Chances are these real-life meetings played out in more quotidian ways, but they provide the dramatic juice this dialogue-driven film needs.

Scarlett Johansson and Driver in Marriage Story
If Adam Driver is never less than very good, there's no real emotional arc here. We know Jones will get the job done, and he does, but it doesn’t really change him, not as much--or as tragically--as similar system-fighting efforts would change NYPD plainclothes officer Frank Serpico or chemical technician and union activist Karen Silkwood. Annette Bening also deserves credit for her understated, quasi-unrecognizable work as Senator Feinstein, but as a director, Burns isn't at the level of Pakula, Lumet, Nichols, or even Soderbergh, and that's okay. He would probably be the first to agree, but this is an important story, and I'm glad he's told it.

By contrast, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, which opens at the Crest on November 29, shows the actor's range like never before. There's a sequence in which Driver and Scarlett Johansson's soon-to-be-divorced couple let down their guards to say all of the terrible things they've been repressing for years. Driver's Charlie yells so loud and so hard that he finally breaks down in heaving sobs. It doesn't feel like acting, but like Driver is re-living something truly traumatic. No matter how he got there, though: it is acting. What he does in The Report is worlds away, but it's still acting to play someone so diligent without making him dull, pedantic, or too good to be true. As Burns says in the press notes, he's "incapable of being boring."

In the end, Jones would produce a still-classified 6,700-page report for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Distilled to 525 pages, his findings were shared with the world, and I'd like to think they made a difference. Jones deserves credit for his dedication, but this country has broken my heart too many times for me to truly believe that the US will never engage in EIT again. It probably has, and it probably will again, but I also hope that men and women like Jones will continue to speak truth to power when they encounter that kind of injustice. It's not so much that torture is un-American, but that it is American--especially when inflicted against bodies of color. It would be nice to live in a country where that is no longer true.

The Report opens at the Varsity on Nov 15. It will be available on Amazon Prime on Nov 29. For extra-credit reading, I recommend this New York Times article, "The Report and the Untold Story of a Senate-CIA Conflict."