By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Berlinale winner Synonyms is a wonderfully quirky if not unquestionably complicated film that will frustrate you at times, but ultimately leave you wanting more of its running spitfire dialogue on identity and nationalism.
After almost freezing to death in a bathroom of an abandoned flat, Israeli soldier Yoav, played brilliantly by newcomer Tom Mercier, roams the streets of Paris trying to become a Parisian gentlemen while attempting to combat stereotypes of his Israeli heritage.
Synonyms is called Synonyms partly because of Yoav’s obsessive habit of memorising words in French while furiously pacing the busy streets of Paris, and partly because of the way the film cleverly brings together the similarities and differences between nations like France and Israel, and the stereotypes that come in between.
After the bathroom incident which is as hilarious as it is strangely sexual and alluring, Yoav unexpectedly makes friends with rich-boy wannabe writer Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and oboe player Caroline (Louise Chevillote) who proceed to show him the town, and help him find a living as a writer – the three’s relationship and infectious energy even reminded me of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers.
And that’s about as comprehensive as the narrative gets. What follows is a truly bizarre and audacious tale of misplaced identity by writer/director Nadav Lapid that feels like a chaotic sort of poetry.
Struggling to make a living, Yoav lives off cheap spaghetti and finds work as a security officer in the Israeli embassy where he encounters multiple macho men that continuously remind him of his homeland and its violent history – something that he is desperately trying to run away from but which he is still tied to through his sensational ‘stories’.
Newcomer Tom Mercier is absolutely mesmerising as the confused twenty-something and despite things turning semi-surreal in the latter half of the film, manages to keep you fixated on the character who is so lovable, even if nothing else in the film is particularly clear.
It’s gloriously debaucherous in the way that it presents Paris as the merciless monster that it is, especially with those who come from abroad seeking a new life. There’s a particularly awkward scene where Yoav is hired by a perverted photographer who makes the guy sexually humiliate himself on the internet.
It all moves at an alarmingly quick pace too which will no doubt frustrate some viewers who like to soak in dialogue, but it worked for me… as did the gorgeous camerawork by Shai Goldman.
Synonyms is equal parts fantastic and f*cked up, and it more than deserves its prestigious Golden Bear award from this year’s Berlinale, and was also a wonderful addition to Prague’s Be2Can film festival this year. It’s by far one of the most interesting films I’ve seen recently.
Catch it from today in Film Europe’s new Edison Filmhub for a screening with English subtitles. And I might even see you there because a film like this demands multiple viewings.