The line between confrontational and irritating can often be a fine one and director Nadav Lapid barrels through that divide with Synonyms, the follow-up to his striking 2014 breakthrough The Kindergarten Teacher. It’s a film that seems to almost want to annoy you into submission at times, although that’s not necessarily a criticism.
Whereas his previous work flirted with the experimental within the confines of a still fairly straight-forward narrative, Lapid’s latest is a full-on abstraction – an assault of imagery and vocabulary. What little plot that does exist revolves around Yoav (newcomer Tom Mercier), a young Israeli man who just arrives in Paris, determined to never go back to his home country. Disgusted by the rampant nationalism that colours his perception of Israel, Yoav aims to become entirely French. So with the aid of his trusty dictionary and a couple of newly adopted friends, a brother-sister duo who are the picture of privileged bourgeois Westerners, he rejects speaking Hebrew entirely and dives right in to his new identity. Needless to say, this is easier said than done, especially when his new home may not have a place for him and his new companions may view him as little more than a novelty.
This set-up allows for Lapid to stage a series of hyperreal sequences where Yoav runs around the City of Love like a crazy person desperately trying to connect with the vibe of the nation. He paces the streets reciting endless streams of French terms or shakes up a dance party in a club by taking a loaf of bread and busting out his own weird dance moves or takes a job as a nude male model for a bizarre and sexually aggressive photo shoot. And just when you think this guy needs to calm down, he hooks up with another Israeli ex-pat named Yaron, who takes this in-your-face behaviour to new extremes.
Synonyms is reportedly based on Lapid’s own experiences and there’s a ton of thematic heft tied into Yoav’s fractured Israeli identity that is obviously very personal for the director. Issues of immigration and racism are also confronted matter-of-factly, like when Yoav is told at his new security guard job to watch for ethnic looking people first and foremost, or in more surreal fashion, as in a great sequence where Yoav declares that there are no more borders as he lets in a group of refugees who are desperately awaiting entry.
Whether this all works for you, however, depends on how far you’re willing to engage. The more radical work of Jean-Luc Godard comes to mind as an inspiration, and at 2 hours, Synonyms can sometimes feel tedious or off-putting. But there’s no denying the amount of energy here and Lapid clearly has a lot to say, no matter how messy the outcome. Isn’t the world just a huge mess anyway?