Berlinale 2019: Nadav Lapid's 'Synonyms' is Biting, Bold Filmmaking
by Alex Billington
February 19, 2019
There's something strange in the neighborhood, someone new and just a bit weird. Synonyms is the latest film from Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid (Emile's Girlfriend, Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher), co-produced by German filmmaker Maren Ade, and it premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival (where it also won the Golden Bear top prize). I caught this film during the festival and I must say - I have never seen anything like it before, which is always impressive. Synonyms is a very weird, wild, funny, odd, satirical French-Israeli dark comedy of sorts. It's hard to describe, and even harder to understand after an initial viewing, but the more I talk about it and play scenes back in my mind, the more I admire its boldness.
Synonyms (also spelled Synonymes) is set mostly in Paris. Yoav shows up in the city one day and moves in to an empty apartment, making friends with the neighbors who take him in and give him clothes. He spends his days wandering around Paris, reading from a French dictionary trying to learn the language, and looking for jobs while encountering other Israeli friends / coworkers. Tom Mercier plays Yoav brilliantly, with an understated yet perfectly balanced performance as this weirdo. But he's weird for a reason - he's playing up (in a very satirical way) the idea of an immigrant, a newcomer in a foreign land. It's awkward, but amusing, because Lapid has such an immensely nuanced and intelligent understanding of how to work in ideas about immigration in today's world. It's a bit brutal at times, but only because he's commenting on today's society.
Nadav Lapid is making us question things we don't like and don't want to question. And he's doing so with a film that is understated and oddly likable, thanks to Yoav's charm. This film would play perfectly as a double feature with Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot from a few years ago. It's bold and biting and original. And both films harshly criticize Israel, especially its military, and its supposedly liberal society. This one even goes one step further, criticizing France as well, questioning whether their perceived openness and diversity is actually as good as everyone thinks. Once you view the film from this angle, it all starts to become clear and it all starts to make more sense. Every aspect of it is a scathing, satirical look at immigrants. For example, the way Yoav starts out in France naked, literally - which is exactly how you feel when you first move in to a new country.
Though I still don't fully understand everything in Synonyms, I do know enough to say it's some damn fine cinema. Despite being so strange. It's definitely not for everyone, and some may have difficulty getting past the weirdness of it all to see what Lapid is really getting at. And there's more beyond immigration - there's some serious sexual tension between the main characters, and Lapid doesn't explore this enough. He instead takes the film down other paths, taking weird left turns, then swerving right again, and all over Paris. It's a fascinating, comical, awkward, confusing, yet still considerably satisfying (artistically) cinematic experience and one that is worthy of being analyzed and examined. Give time to let this one soak in after your first dip.
Alex's Berlinale 2019 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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