Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 
Author Message
PostPosted: Wed Oct 02, 2019 4:56 am 
Site Admin

Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2003 1:50 pm
Posts: 4055
Location: California/NYC


Nationality malaise as a form of madness

Synonyms is a bracing, invigorating film with an explosive young star (found in acting school) and a series of astonishing high-energy, highly-verbal set pieces. They only begin to pall toward the end when things go on a bit too long and as you realize Lapid isn'g going anywhere, that the astonishment hides a certain emptiness. It's surprising to learn the movie's autobiographical because its protagonist is borderline crazy, maybe full-on crazy. But Lapid's treatment of his own experience is free and fanciful and riffs off the distinctive abilities of the lead who's little like him. He has reimagined himself as an idealistic superhero.

Yoav (Tom Mercier, a 26-year-old Israeli* whose actual father is French) arrives in Paris from Israel, enters a large unoccupied apartment and takes a shower. The movie revels in Mercier's well-built, well-hung young body throughout: he has a background as a judo champion and dancer. One of his main assets is his intense physicality and boldness (no apparent hesitation about frontal nudity), which in fact is the picture. Once out of the shower, he discovers that his clothes and his whole big sack of possessions are gone. He runs around frantically from one big empty room to the other naked, freezing. There seems to be no heat. Was there hot water? The movie is vague about details, including how the protagonist speaks French so well.

The movie will return to the fact that Yoav, though he goes out and bangs on other apartment doors, begging in French in vain for help, he never descends to the street and instead returns to the bath tub. Cut to a young (very) French couple who discover him lying there asleep or unconscious. Émile (Quentin Dolmaire of Desplechin's My Golden Days) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), partially revive him and carry him out to the big posh nearby apartment they share. The situation that develops may remind you of Bertolucci's The Dreamers, but without the period flavor and graceful ménage à trois interactions of Eva Green, Louis Garrel, and Michael Pitt. In its deliberate unreality, its young seekers, and its eccentric declarations Synonyms suggests Godard films like La Chinoise. The shock-value set pieces also somewhat resemble Ruben Östlund's 2017 The Square.

The opening is shot with vigorous handheld photography whose deliberate brutality conveys a sense of Yoav's dislocation, and is marked by Mercier's sheer exhibitionism. He's a dazzlingly confident , go-for-broke actor whose skill is only undermined by a certain blankness. He's as much a performance artist as a dramatic actor. But is his whole nature perhaps symbolic of Israel itself, bold, brave, intense, but essentially rudderless and heedless? Underlying the whole film there is the implied sweeping, if superficial, critique of Israel. Yoav turns out to have come to France intending to abandon his native country though a decorated soldier. He has no other real plan but to cease being Israeli, stop speaking Hebrew, and become French. He calls Israel "nasty, obscene, ignorant, idiotic, crude and mean-spirited" (méchant, obscène, ignorant, hideux, vieux, sordide, grossier, abominable) and a string of other expressive derogatory adjectives he pronounces with pleasure in the poetic sound of the French words.

"It can't be all those at once," Émile says. "Choose." All this is in French, and Yoav refuses to speak Hebrew throughout except for one humiliating "artist's model" gig and declares his intention to become French. However he gains no other French friends besides Émile and Caroline, though he bonds with a tough, violent Israeli security guard called Yaron (Uria Hayik). He goes to live in a tiny chambre de bonne where he survives on ultra-cheap meals of pasta and canned tomato sauce, whose preparation is dwelt upon almost fetishistically. Eventually Caroline comes there and sleeps with him, overlapping Émile's decision that she should marry Yoav so he can become a French citizen. Godardian, absurdist scenes of a citizenship class follow, along with sequences of semiviolent macho Israeli encounters, some involving the Israeli embassy, and meetups by Skype and in person with Yoav's parents, whom he directs with polite firmness to leave him alone.

The movie presents one scene after another featuring Yoav, in no particular order. Émile, the son of a wealthy industrialist, and his girlfriend Caroline, who plays the oboe in a local arrondissement orchestra, adopt Yoav and want to protect him. One of the movie's most obvious weaknesses is the thinness and wanness of the two French characters. Émile is a would-be writer, who has written 40-odd pages of a novel, but lacks energy and invention. Caroline's main character trait is that she plays the oboe. Yoav begins spouting stories in his odd but curiously fluent French, to augment which he acquires a "good, but light" French dictionary at a bookstore. The film is dominated not only by Mercier's physical presence but by his harsh, confident male Israeli voice, spouting French. He often recites series of words he likes with similar sound, or similar meaning - hence the title. Sexy, graceful, strong, and somehow sensitive, Mercier is always attractive, though with his pointed nose and little mouth he's not handsome.

Instead of mal de pays, longing for homeland, Yoav has the opposite, a kind of nationality malaise. The specific details of why one might be discontented with his native land, its racism, its chauvinism, its militarism, its brutal repression of the Palestinian people, are things Yoav never goes into, though there is a telling scene in French citizenship class where the teacher proudly vaunts the "laïcité," the secularity of France. But this lack of detail reenforces Synonyms' Godadian, Brechtian fable quality. Yoav repeatedly tells Émile how his father told him as a boy the story of Hector and Troy, but refused to reveal to him how it ends. He tells other stories of his life, in an intense, fable-like style, and announces he "gives" these stories to the story-deficient would-be fabulist Émile, who accepts them gratefully.

Yoav becomes increasingly crazy as the oddball distinctiveness of Tom Mercier's personality and thespian skills is slowly but surely ramped up. When asked a profound question about Israel, redemption through nationality vs. inner change at a NYFF Q&A, Lapid answered "Sometimes I just have to say I am only a filmmaker." This movie is notable for its effective theatricality and gritty cinematic qualities - as well as the spot-on editing by the director's mother that's so breathtakingly flashy at times you don't know whether to cheer or jeer. It's not noted for its calm and thoughtful exploration of ideas, or for a meaningful plot line beyond the stunning initial premise.

I enjoyed this film - it's fresh, has an unforgettable opening, and holds your attention much of the way - but in the end I was left wanting more. It may be best discussed by Israelis: its theme is one worth their taking seriously. But it has reminded me that I found Lapid's first two films, both of which I reviewed as part of Lincoln Center film events, were similarly bold and striking yet crude, vague, and lacking structural coherence.

Synonyms/Synonymes, 123 mins., in French with some Hebrew and English, premiered at the Berlinale, winning the Golden Bear top feature prize. Opening a fortnight later in Israeli cinemas, it was slated for nearly two dozen other festivals, including Toronto, New York, and Mill Valley. Watched at a NYFF screening Oct. 1, 2019. It opened in France in March with a fair critical reception (AlloCiné press rating 3.4, but top praise from Cahiers du Cinéma and Les Inrocks). Coming to US theaters Oct. 25, it has a current Metascore of 85%.
*See more about Mercier in Haaretz.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 

All times are UTC - 8 hours

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: cknipp, Google [Bot] and 29 guests

You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group