March 25, 2020  (Web Review)

Synonyms

Kino Lorber, 123 min., in French & Hebrew w/English subtitles, not rated, DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $34.99

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s autobiographically inspired Synonyms stars Tom Mercier in a standout performance as Yoav, an Israeli expat newly arrived in Paris, who gets off to a bumpy start: Yoav’s backpack is stolen while he’s in the shower and he winds up running naked up and down the apartment complex stairs pounding on doors to beg for help. Finding none, he returns to his apartment and curls up freezing in the bathtub, where he is later rescued by an almost comically stereotypical young French unmarried couple: Emile (Quentin Dolmaire), a would-be writer laboring on a novel entitled Nights of Inertia, and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), a sexually adventurous oboe player. Armed with a bilingual dictionary, Yoav daily adds to his French word-hoard while interacting with Emile and Caroline and struggling to make ends meet. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Yoav takes a job as a male model and is coerced into sexually demeaning role-playing while being forced to speak Hebrew (the graphic male nudity and a brief masturbation scene make this suitable for more adventurous collections). Yoav’s stranger-in-a-strange-land odyssey is consistently unpredictable and full of wonderful moments, including Yoav’s impromptu freeform dance in a cramped apartment, and a politically-tinged scene in which he works at a border crossing and simply removes a barrier to let immigrants stream in rather than being forced to stand in the rain waiting for slow-moving entry interviews. Although at times it feels intellectually pretentious and some of the more pointed bits of commentary don’t really work (such as one scene in which a yarmulke-wearing Israeli acquaintance of Yoav works his way through a metro car aggressively humming in the face of clearly uncomfortable French passengers), Synonyms ultimately wins viewers over, thanks to the go-for-broke turn by Mercier as a man burdened by a painful past struggling to break free and assume a new identity. Extras include a New York Film Festival conversation with Lapid and an interview with the director. Recommended. (R. Pitman)