Synonyms (2019)

At times frustrating to watch, this unorthodox work about national identity will impress and alienate in equal measure.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Dir. Nadav Lapid
2019 | Israel/France | Drama/Comedy | 123 mins | 2.35:1 | French, Hebrew & English
R21 (passed clean) for sexual scenes and nudity

Cast:  Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte
Plot: A young Israeli man absconds to Paris to flee his nationality, aided by his trusty Franco-Israeli dictionary.
Awards: Won Golden Berlin Bear & FIPRESCI Prize (Berlin)
International Sales: SBS Intl

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: The Projector – Singapore International Film Festival 2019
Spoilers: No

Last year’s Golden Berlin Bear winner perhaps deserves the award for the audacity to pull off one of the most tonally-jarring pictures in recent times. 

Despite its title, this is a film that you can’t put a string of synonyms together in one sentence to describe how good or bad it is.  Instead, it would be more aptly represented by a series of contradictory adjectives—brilliant, maddening, impressive, frustrating, original, confounding, etc. 

Directed by Israeli filmmaker Navad Lapid in what is his third fiction feature after Policeman (2011) and The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), Synonyms is an unorthodox work that explores the transitory nature of national identity. 

“He says giving up your language kills part of yourself. “

The lead character, Yoav (starring newcomer Tom Mercier in an eye-catching display of performative intensity), flees to Paris to escape his Israeli past, using every opportunity to discard his birth identity for a French one.  Trying hard to ace the language, he encounters a local couple who take him in. 

Experiencing Lapid’s work is like sitting on a high-flying swing; it is exhilarating yet it can get dizzying and alienating at times because you are at the mercy of a filmmaker who is trying too hard with the tools at his disposal. 

Shot largely with handheld cameras, Synonyms evokes the spirit of the French New Wave, in both its brilliance and pretentiousness, but while the film eventually left me cold, it still manages to say something about the human need for connection and rootedness—or in other words, the swinging must stop at some point.

Grade: C+


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