The opening moments of Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms” have a sinister, almost Kafka-esque absurdity. Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young man who has forsaken his Israeli identity for a French one, wraps himself in a sleeping bag and hops along the floor of the vacant Paris apartment where he’s temporarily staying. When he gets to the bathroom, he wriggles out of the bag and hops into the tub, as though he were shedding a cocoon.
But after his bath, Yoav finds that all his possessions have mysteriously vanished, leaving him shivering and naked as he dashes from one apartment to the next, knocking on doors and crying for help.
Help arrives in the form of a neighboring young couple, Émile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), who find Yoav passed out in the tub, carry him into their apartment and bundle him in blankets. They’re unfazed by this visitor’s sudden arrival, and their unconcealed curiosity, as well as their flirtation with a certain cheeky-worldly French stereotype, may make you wonder if the movie is about to take a polyamorous turn.
But there is more than prurience in their gaze, and in the movie’s. Lapid, his camera magnetized by the human body whether in motion or at rest, confronts you with Yoav’s nakedness early and often. He wants to familiarize you with it, until it has transformed from one thing, an object of potential art-house titillation, into something more resonant and ambiguous. Yoav’s nude body becomes a kind of metaphorical conflict zone, his circumcised penis an eternal reminder that identity cannot always be cast off like a carapace, no matter how hard you might try.
And, oh, how Yoav tries and tries throughout “Synonyms,” a searing, maddening, explosively brainy movie about the mutability and immutability of the self that, appropriately enough, never stops changing shape. This wildly unpredictable picture, winner of the top prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival (full disclosure: I was on the jury), is the third feature from the 44-year-old Lapid, whose earlier “Policeman” and “The Kindergarten Teacher” announced him as an unusually fearless and provocative social critic among Israeli filmmakers.
Following a character abroad for the first time, Lapid has made a corrosive portrait of a man who rejects his homeland, forbidding himself to speak Hebrew and hurling himself into the French language. But total immersion doesn’t mean an easy transformation, and “Synonyms,” awash in Greek mythology, Hebrew poetry and French adjectives, swiftly morphs into a wrenching, fiercely funny drama of cultural estrangement. The man in question is a version of Lapid himself, who drew elements of the story from his own experience. Rather than feigning a seamless merging of his actual and fictional selves, he builds that tension right into the movie’s surface, making it manifest in formal terms.
And so while most scenes are precisely shot and composed, observing Yoav from a thoughtful remove, at certain points, the movie suddenly leaps into a handheld frenzy, as though trying to approximate his point of view. The camera swoops and darts restlessly about as Yoav makes his way down the street and along the Seine, practicing his stilted, lovely French and learning new words from a pocket dictionary.
Later, when he dances in a club packed with revelers, the widescreen frame seems unable to contain their collective exhilaration. (The cinematography is by Shai Goldman; the editing is by François Gédigier, Neta Braun and Era Lapid, the director’s mother, who died in 2018.)
This mercurial visual style makes a strange sense for a character torn between warring aspects of his history and identity, between the possibilities of his new home and the trauma and disillusionment of his past. We see that past emerge in jagged, absurdist flashbacks to his time as an Israeli soldier. We also see it seep into the present when he reluctantly takes a security job at the Israeli consulate in Paris, where he meets a colleague, Yaron (Uri Hayik), who is his proudly Jewish antithesis.
Lapid extracts some arresting physical comedy here, all in service of a scalding satirical vision. An office wrestling match between two other security workers becomes a hilarious sendup of Israeli militarism, dripping with performative machismo. A sequence in which Yoav rebels at work, letting a long line of visitors into the consulate, offers a funny, thrillingly suggestive vision of barriers being cast aside.
But your laughter may swell and die in your throat when a cash-strapped Yoav debases himself for a pornographer (Christophe Paou) who has a particular fixation on the young man’s Jewishness. The cringe-inducing spectacle that follows reduces Yoav to a tawdry symbol and tramples his conflicted, complicated humanity.
Mercier’s performance, for its part, invites any number of contradictory readings. A trained dancer and martial artist, he acts with a ferocious physicality, alternating between robotic stiffness and lightning-quick grace, between defensiveness and confrontation. Yoav is a blank slate, a canvas onto which the audience can project its fantasies, assumptions and ideas. (The lack of baggage from earlier screen roles helps; astonishingly, this is Mercier’s screen debut.) Émile helps Yoav dress up that canvas, clothing him in the attire of a chic, culturally assimilated Frenchman; his signature item is a golden overcoat so striking that it almost becomes another character.
But clothes don’t make the man, and Yoav’s identity remains a construct of mind and flesh. He cannot change his body, but he can alter his language, and so he keeps feverishly practicing his French, attacking each new word with violent purpose. His insult vocabulary balloons overnight: As he tells Émile, he abandoned Israel because it is “nasty, obscene, ignorant, idiotic, sordid, fetid, crude, abominable, odious, lamentable, repugnant, detestable, mean-spirited, mean-hearted.” To which Émile diplomatically replies, “No country is all that at once.”
Maybe not. But Yoav’s tragedy, one suggested by the title of “Synonyms” itself, is that one country may not be quite so different from another. Émile, an aspiring writer, and Caroline, an oboist, are, at once, generous and exploitative; they are friendly strangers and also smirking caricatures of France’s cultured class. And the strange, unpredictable, quasi-romantic triangle that binds them to Yoav becomes a kind of metaphor for the fraught, complex allyship between France and Israel. Lapid pushes the comparisons to the breaking point, never more so than when he lets us hear some especially bloodthirsty snippets from “La Marseillaise.” In that moment we realize that Yoav is more lost than ever, a man whose conscience has left him without a country.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles