From the Archives: Synonyms feels like a beautiful dream

From the Archives: Synonyms feels like a beautiful dream

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Unfortunately, I think I lack the social/geopolitical knowledge to have fully understood Synonyms. I liked it quite a bit, for reasons I will get into shortly, but I do feel as if I am at arm’s length from it. Clearly a nuanced picture, I imagine that additional research will open it up for me in many ways, but as it stands, I can only look at it from a more clinical perspective. The good news is, even from an outsider angle, there’s a lot to latch on to here.

More a cinematic rant than a typical plot-based narrative, Synonyms opens with a bang and rarely lets up. Having just arrived in France by way of Israel, Yoav (Tom Mercier) soon finds himself naked and alone in an under-furnished Airbnb. He rubs one out for good measure, and before long has found himself freezing in the bathtub. He is soon found by the downstairs residents, lovers Emile and Caroline (Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte). Or at least I think they’re lovers. Either way, it isn’t long before both halves of this duo are passively seduced by Yoav in more ways than one.

And that’s really the strength of this movie: the seductive capabilities of Yoav, who is also quite capable of seducing himself into believing things that may not necessarily be true. Credit to the performance put forth by Mercier, which alternates from a thriving mania to a reserved confusion pretty regularly. It was in these shifts that I was able to find an entry point into the film. When we as people actively seek to establish an identity, this bipolar response is quite normal. The irony being that identity is not really ever something we find, but rather something that finds us. Perhaps this is what Synonyms is all about. As Yoav tries to trade his old identity, that of an Israeli military man, in exchange for a new one, that of a contemporary, faux-hemian Frenchman, the differences between his two proposed characterizations are nowhere near as stark as the similarities. But Yoav refuses to see this, even as he runs to escape it. He carries around his Hebrew-French dictionary to help him fit in, refusing to speak Hebrew outside of a reticent growl, forgetting the fact that words, despite sounding different in French, still mean the same thing.


Flashbacks appear unannounced, and it’s not often clear that they are flashbacks until three days after you watch the movie when you’re writing a review but find you don’t have much to say about it. In macro, these flashbacks are rather meandering (possibly the point?), but each thrum with the same moment-by-moment energy that carries Synonyms across the finish line. The filmmaking, too, is wonderful to behold. Bouncing from classical European cinema (the opening sequence provides a thorough geography of the flat where much of the film takes place, while also silently informing us of Yoav’s character), to gritty handheld camerawork that, unlike so many American movies, actually functions as “shaky cam” theoretically should, one gets the feeling that writer/director Nadav Lapid assembled this movie in a fever dream. Makes sense since, as I understand it, this story is loosely autobiographical.

This notion lends itself to the idea that one probably doesn’t need cultural context in order to get what Lapid is saying, but my criticism still stands. Even just accepting the film as a character drama about identity, it still feels like a piece is missing. But it’s hard to fault the movie too hard for my own lack of knowledge, because for its approximate two hour runtime, Synonyms is a very compelling watch.

Synonyms opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse

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