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

No comments:

Post a Comment