Synonyms premiered mostly to acclaim at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival, where it took home the Golden Bear, the festivals top prize. It’s perplexing how others are able to connect to it since this semi-autobiographical meditation on identity is so severely internalized and stripped of momentum, it’s practically comatose. We follow Yoav, a young Israeli man who flees to Paris and is taken in by a French couple after they save him from nearly freezing to death in an abandoned apartment. From there, it’s essentially a series of vaguely connected scenes that play out like elliptical and obscure memories. That may sound alluring, but it’s painfully dull. Yoav functions as director Navad Lapid’s ostensible stand-in, but he’s given no personality whatsoever, and without any sort of insight into his character, he seems less repressed (which I have to assume is the intention) and more like a black hole of charisma sleepwalking through Parisian streets and apartments.
The French couple are Emile (whose name I only recall because it’s incessantly repeated at varying volumes) and Caroline (I admit I had to look hers up); they take him under their wing initially, and it appears as if Lapid is setting up an intriguing love triangle à la Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, but he never really capitalizes on this inherent drama until far too late, and even then it lacks any kind of intensity. It’s as if Lapid intends to portray a world drained of emotion, where the most vigorous reaction you’ll get from someone is a blank stare or tepid shrug.
Synonyms is clearly meant as a sort of memory piece: a recollection of Lapid’s own journey of self-discovery through Paris. But unlike Joanna Hogg’s similarly autobiographical film The Souvenir earlier this year, the moments Lapid hones in on aren’t powerful or particularly engaging, and he offers no sense of connective tissue between scenes. This isn’t to say his story isn’t worth telling, but by eschewing characterization and plot continuity, the scenes play out with no sense of structure, tone, or narrative cohesion. It’s tough to get a grasp on what Lapid was aiming for because the formlessness doesn’t make Synonyms any more abstract or poetic; it’s just unimaginative.
Tom Mercier in Synonymes photo by Guy Ferrandis, courtesy of SBS Films
There are a few exciting sequences, but they’re mostly incongruous diversions. One comes from a friend Yoav makes in his listless journey through Paris: a mentally unstable man who gets aggressively close to strangers on public transport and loudly hums in their faces, clearly looking for a fight. He’s easily one of the film’s most interesting (though deplorable) characters, and it’s bittersweet to see him jettisoned quickly. Another sequence is near the end when Yoav loudly berates a group of performers backstage in a seemingly unmotivated attack that’s jarringly out of character. These moments seem like parts of larger memories, but we’re never given that context.
Watch other Navad Lapid Films Here