Updated: Nov 20, 2019
This film’s a weird one, and not just because you see the main character’s dick before you learn his name (Yoav) or hear his voice. The camera doesn’t actually sexualize him or anything, it’s just invasive, resulting in an opening sequence in which he’s deprived of all his personal belongings and then runs around naked before nearly freezing to death. After that, the film never leaves Yoav alone, as there’s not a single scene in which he’s not the focal point. You see him go through some truly absurd happenings in Paris, which were entertaining, but it was hard for me to realize what the film was about until the ending line. It was only after I left the theater and spent an unholy amount of time thinking about it that things began to fall into place, and even now, I think I’ll have to watch it over and over again to fully comprehend its inner workings. From what I can tell, Synonyms is a revealing, bizarre, delirious portrait of a traumatized Israeli man desperately trying to be reborn a Frenchman - but the film’s alienating and darkly blithe nature is definitely not for everyone.
One indisputably positive aspect of this film is Tom Mercier’s excellent and courageous performance as Yoav. Like I said earlier, the opening scene involves him running around naked, and it’s also not the only scene in which he’s naked, but that only scratches the surface of the physicality Mercier brings to the character. He walks with a stoic, stiff, tense, awkward gait at all times, and his expressions are just as contained. Even so, he still manages to portray the necessary emotions when he has to, whether it be comedic or dramatic. My favorite example of the former is when he watches a sudden fight that breaks out in a small office - he kinda just stands there making awkward hand gestures, clearly confused about whether he should join in, break it up, or do nothing. As for the latter, there’s a scene in which a family member from Israel comes to visit, and you see Yoav stand in the middle of the walkway, stiff as a board. He’s also obsessed with learning French, always keeping a pocket dictionary on his person and repeating synonyms of words as he walks (which, hey, that’s the title, isn’t it?!). He also dons an iconic yellow-beige jacket that I now want to own and wear for the rest of my life, even though it’s typically not my color. I have yet to see anything Mercier has done beyond this, but he’s always going to be Yoav to me.
The filmmaking itself is somewhat bizarre. The camera alternates between emulating Yoav’s perspective and capturing general shots of his surroundings, though to call any part of the cinematography objective is a stretch. This includes getting wonderful, shaky shots of the ground as Yoav walks and recites his words, or still shots of him walking around from afar but without getting too much of the environment in the frame. When he’s not in the frame, it’s still established that it’s his perspective because the other characters in the film are framed more voyeuristically. Essentially, even though he may not be the center of a scene, you can still tell you’re witnessing the events from his perspective. All of this clearly establishes that Yoav is the film’s source of gravity - this is his film, and the camerawork truly solidifies that idea. There’s also a sparse amount of music, which adds a sense of realism to the proceedings and forces the viewer to react to scenes without the music telling them how to feel.
As for what Synonyms is actually about, the plot is very basic. The film prioritizes the exploration of Yoav’s character and the accompanying themes over crafting a cohesive, in-depth narrative. This unfortunately has the side effect of making the events feel disconnected, unless you do all the extra legwork to understand how they fit into the thematic structure. Honestly, the best way to show this dichotomy is by citing a direct example. So take this scene (which, even in context, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense):
In summary, Yoav meets a fellow Israeli man living in Paris, and they go on a train together, in which his friend loudly hums the “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, in the passengers’ faces. This follows discussions of how to exist as an Israeli person in a country where you’re a severe minority, and, more broadly, how to exist as a Jewish person. His friend wears a kippah and hums the Hatikvah to draw attention to his existence as such, while Yoav remains silent, despite being of the same origin. While this scene is obviously absurd and weird and seemingly disconnected from a concrete narrative, it still characterizes Yoav as a man uncomfortable with being Israeli, and raises questions about reconciling your discursive national and religious identities with the majority’s identity. Should you be obvious about it, or should you hide it? Is there even a right answer? The film doesn’t provide one, and it operates in similar ambiguities throughout its run.
This is why, ultimately, Synonyms will not be for everyone. The film’s intentionally esoteric, cloaking its themes in bizarre scenes and intentionally not giving the audience any easy means of understanding it. I remember thinking that was actually a bad thing while watching it, with thoughts like “oh this film is just trying to be artsy, weird, and inaccessible for the sake of it, how ineffectual,” constantly running through my head. Then, the last line of the film happened, which brought some clarity to what preceded it - Yoav proclaims, “You have no idea how lucky you are to be French,” to no one in particular. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself relating to it, and not even because I completely understood it. If anything, the ambiguities are why the film’s ideas and scenes are still stewing around in my head as I write this, and have stayed longer than I intended them to. From what I can gather, the film argues that, as much as you try to blend in, adopt another culture and run away from your own, who you are is never going to completely change. Yoav’s never going to become the perfect synonym for a Frenchman - and the implications of that are weird, unfocused, difficult to clearly articulate, and troubling, just like the film.
At least, I hope that’s what the film was about. I think I need to rewatch it a couple more times before you take that theory to heart.