By Travis Merchant.
The power of language and assimilation runs rampant throughout Synonyms (2019), Nadav Lapid’s semi-autobiographical film about an Israeli immigrant in France. Throughout the film, Yoav (Tom Mercier) is challenged to become more acclimated to French life after he runs away from his home and position in the Israeli army. The film focuses tightly on Yoav’s identity as he attempts to find some sort of interrelation between identity and the language he speaks. When people question his origin, like Emile (Quentin Dolaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), Yoav attempts to always fix his identity as French. In the streets, Yoav attempts to become one with his surroundings by rehearsing French, particularly synonyms of words, to get himself thinking in a language outside of his native tongue. These moments and others like them display a fluctuation of identity and a focus on language as defining identity. Through powerful performances, most notably from newcomer Tom Mercier, the drama of situating oneself in a comfortable identity plays itself in heightened fashion. By the end of the film, Mercier’s performance becomes frantic and terrifying as he begins to lose complete concentration on his identity and how he belongs in France as an immigrant. Synonyms finds itself contemplating the power of identity through the music and language, the subjective point of view, and moments of drama that predicate themselves on understanding what it means to be a person outside of national borders.
Some segments of the film focus solely on Yoav’s point of view by shooting in the first-person. Not only that, but music also plays a huge part in sequences in which Yoav’s identity and origins are questioned. First, the sequences when the audience sees the streets of Paris from Yoav’s point of view begin to chart the way that language resides as the first step of identification as a part of France, rather than a member of the Israeli army. These sequences are the only moments in the film that completely side with Yoav, as they place the audience within his perspective and hear what sounds like internal thoughts. In these moments, Yoav rehearses several synonyms of French words, which aid his process of naturalization within the French culture that acts as the conduit for the betrayal of his true identity as an Israeli man. The other portion of this identification comes from the few scenes that utilize music within the film’s diegesis. These scenes also go alongside the role of art and literature as a way to bridge connections between people and create an identity around the subject. For Yoav, the role of music usually comes at times that help to illustrate how Yoav responds to art and the ways that it can provide communication for himself.
Additionally, there’s a telling scene about halfway through the film in which Yoav proudly yells the French anthem in a citizenship class; this moment provides hints about the fascist treatment he received as a member of the Israeli army and the abuse that could come with that. However, what complicates this moment is the fact that Yoav nearly drones out every other immigrant in the room and the teacher.
The coded strain that Yoav possesses, with his identity as an Israeli immigrant that desires to be French, plays itself out within the relationship that he has with Emile and Caroline. The acting between the three creates a dynamic tension that keeps the viewer guessing about the events that each character will follow with each other. In the beginning, it seems like Caroline harbors some type of aggression towards Yoav, and Emile provides the only route for naturalization in Paris. However, the film complicates this within the second and third act of the film as Yoav seems to blend his betrayed identity with his desired one. It’s a strain that begins to create interesting reactions from the other two characters. If the film’s focus on transnationality and crossing of borders prevails, the relationship between the three main characters posits a shifting dynamic that constantly conflates the placement of borders in nations and friendships. Yoav seems to cross boundaries that may exist, or others cross his preferences and beg him to embrace his origin. Within this constant fight for power, Yoav’s character continues to get lost within the synonyms that he rehearses and the lines of the dictionaries that he reads.
Yoav bares himself for the camera in a variety of ways throughout Synonyms. This baring for the camera, both for Yoav and Tom Mercier, becomes the source of the drama and tension that resides throughout. This seems to play itself out strongly with the use of language as that mode of identification, but Yoav’s position as an immigrant constantly gets tested. His attempts at assimilation into French culture create empowering moments, which are also coded through nationalistic tendencies that were passed down from his time in Israel. The fluid nature of the crossed border and identity creates a tension that grips the film’s heart to its core by asking the viewer to consider the power of nationality and pride within a country. Yoav positions himself as one who wants people to realize that the power of the country may be dying, but he also desires to join that identity.
Travis Merchant is the Image Editor for Film International, an adjunct instructor at Wake Technical Community College, and a teaching assistant at NC State. Some of his writings have been published in Film Matters, and he presented at the sixth and seventh annual Visions Film Festival and Conference. He graduated from UNCW in 2016 with degrees in film studies and English, and he achieved honours with his film degree. Some of his interests in film and media studies are on phenomenology, sound design and music, and intertextuality between works.