NYFF Film Review: ‘Synonyms’ Defies Easy Definition

2019 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: When a storyteller opts to ignore all presumed conventions about their movie, it’s a very compelling thing to witness. That can lead to greatness, a train-wreck, or something in between, but it rarely leads to boredom. “Synonyms,” playing at the New York Film Festival, uses the issue of identity and the fish out of water story to weave a truly unique tale. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s wildly different and features a lead performance worth raving about.

“Synonyms” is, at various moments, a comedy, a drama, a farce, a tragedy, and sometimes all those things at once. Based on director Nadav Lapid‘s own experiences, there’s a lived in feel to the quieter moments. Other more outrageous ones liven things up, but it’s impossible not to feel how personal a project this is.

On his first night in Paris, things aren’t going well for Yoav (Tom Mercier). Presuming that an escape to France will save his soul from the madness of his home country Israel, he’s ready to embrace the French way of life. Instead, he finds his flat is empty and while bathing his belongings are stolen. Left literally cold and naked, he’s helped out by neighbors Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), who give him some money and a phone. Determined to make his new way of life work, Yoav refuses to speak Hebrew, instead relying on his dictionary to immerse himself in French.

Told in fragments, we see Yoav struggling, bonding with both Emile and Caroline, as well as potentially showcasing some mental instability. The more he tries to find himself in France, the more his past demons begin to rear their heads. Yoav’s cultural identity is up for debate as he insists he’s no longer Israeli and solely a Frenchman, while others repeatedly want to hear his native tongue. It all builds toward a quietly moving ending that suggests, while the movie is over, the story of Yoav is far from finished.

Tom Mercier tackles this character in an unpredictable manner. Everything he does is unique and unlike the choices any other actor would make. In the same way that Joaquin Phoenix can tackle human characters in singular ways, so too does Mercier. Whether it’s a blank expression on his face, his response to a modeling shoot that goes very much off the rails, or how he handles his friends, it’s always exciting. Louise Chevillotte and Quentin Dolmaire turn in much simpler work, but each has phenomenal chemistry with Mercier.

Filmmaker Nadav Lapid makes a number of bold choices, not all of which pay off. His two main missteps in “Synonyms” are the repeated exposure of Mercier’s genitalia, which becomes humorous instead of ultimately tragic. Mercier is bold and unafraid to be naked on screen, but Lapid goes overboard, pulling you out of certain scenes. When a photgrapher takes advantage of Yoav, the impact is dulled. As for the camera work, Lapid and cinematographer Shai Goldman make “The Blair Witch Project” appear like SteadyCam footage. The cinematography is far too shaky during outdoor walking sequences. It’s only during outdoor sequences though. Indoors, it’s steady and keeps you focused on the story.

On the other hand, Lapid keeps things exciting by not letting the plot unfold in typical fashion. He mixes in moments of bonding between the characters with Yoav’s solo excursions. He and his co-writer Haim Lapid use little details to paint the protagonist in a quirky light. For example, Yoav uses the clothes Emile gifts him to plug a hole in the wall of his apartment. Things like that keep you guessing in the best way.

“Synonyms” tells a simple story in a very unusual fashion. Mercier is so good in this challenging role that you’re willing to forgive the occasional step in the wrong direction. Sure to be one of the odder films playing at NYFF this year, it may also be the one with the best acting. Keep an eye on Mercier since he has a chance to break out in a big way.

“Synonyms” is distributed by Kino Lorber and opens on October 25.

GRADE: (★★★)