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Synonyms follows young Israeli ex-soldier Yoav (Tom Mercier), who moves to Paris hoping to escape his national identity.

1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All rights reserved/Courtesy of TIFF

  • Synonyms
  • Co-written and directed by Nadav Lapid
  • Starring Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte
  • 123 minutes

rating

Sitting and seething by the Seine one cloudy night, Yoav spits out the synonyms he memorized that afternoon from his Hebrew-French dictionary. “I moved to France to flee Israel,” he explains to his new Parisian friend, Émile. “Flee a state that is nasty, obscene, ignorant, idiotic, sordid, fetid, crude, abominable, odious, lamentable, repugnant, detestable, mean-spirited, mean-hearted.”

Émile shrugs off the torrent of words. “No country is all that at once,” he replies. “Choose.”

Émile doesn’t get it. He can’t understand Yoav’s urge to eradicate himself, to cleave out the cancer of his Israeli identity and replace it with something French; to be reborn as a synonym of himself brimming with liberté, egalité, fraternité.

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But fraternity does not come automatically, and in Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid’s relentless, brutal, disorienting, absurdist Synonyms, which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, it may not come at all. As for true equality? Well, it’s a nice word.

Lapid would know. Best known as the writer-director of the original 2014 film version of The Kindergarten Teacher (in which the gifted child poet was also named Yoav), Lapid explained to audiences at this year’s TIFF that Synonyms is based on an episode in his own life. A few years after finishing his mandated army service, he took off to France in a sudden desperate need to uncouple his fate from that of his Israeli homeland and begin again from scratch.

That is the point in the story where we find Yoav (the extraordinary, combustible newcomer Tom Mercier) – newly arrived in Paris and, in short order, stripped of his possessions, ID’d as Jewish (in France, the circumcised penis gives him away) and near death. He is rescued by Émile and his lithesome girlfriend, Caroline, bored bourgeois lovers living languorously in a grand Left Bank apartment subsidized by Émile’s industrialist father.

(This being a French film, you may have a sense of what happens next for the two-plus-one: Paris, as they say, is for lovers.)

Tom Mercier gives an extraordinary, combustible performance as Yoav, left.

1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All rights reserved/Courtesy of TIFF

Dressed in some of Émile’s castoffs, Yoav regards himself in the mirror, envisioning his new life, cooing about “counts, countesses, dukes, duchesses.”

He aspires to write. He tells disturbing stories from his past to Émile, who fancies himself a novelist and pinches the tales in order to enliven his own stalled work of fiction about the banality of life – titled, without evident self-awareness, Nights of Inertia.

But if Yoav’s grammar is correct, his idioms are not. He struts the streets – Lapid’s kinetic camera echoing his frenzied inner state – practising his French-language skills, his inner monologue stuffed with words that clash and speak of power struggles. Language, he comes to realize, is a necessary condition to join a society; it is not a sufficient one.

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And so Yoav falls back on his few marketable skills, working security with hatchet-faced Israelis living abroad, who regard him warily for refusing to speak Hebrew. He heads out on the town with one of them, Yaron, who warns that Europe is “a hornets’ nest” of terror and trembles with paranoid excitement at the thought of being a hero, preventing another strike similar to the 2015 attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris or the 2016 Nice truck attack.

Until that happens, though, Yaron trolls for trouble, donning a skullcap and stalking passengers in the Metro, aggressively humming the Israeli national anthem in their faces and salivating for pushback that he might take for anti-Semitism and greet with explosive violence.

Similar to a growing number of countries across the globe embracing nationalism, Yaron is nothing without an antagonist. The persecution complex is his birthright.

But Israel’s isn’t the only ugly bit of nationalism on display. Yoav attends naturalization classes, where aspiring French citizens from around the world receive a crash course in their new country – introduced to the notion that the rooster is French “because it is brave and strong and gets up early,” taught about the separation of church and state in 1905 and that civil rights are guaranteed to all who live in the Republic.

Not everyone is equal, though, if we’re being honest. Synonyms are words that mean similar but ultimately different things. At one point, students in the class are asked to stand individually and recite sections of La Marseillaise. Who knew the chorus of the French anthem contains the bracing nationalist lyrics, “Let us march! Let us march! So that impure blood irrigates our fields!”?

Synonyms opens at the TIFF Lightbox Nov. 1.

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