Friday, October 25, 2019

Civilization and Its Discontents: Synonyms (Synonymes, 2019)

Quentin Dolmaire and Tom Mercier in Synonyms (Synonymes, 2019).

In our era of resurging fascism, Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid (and co-writer Haim Lapid) give us Synonyms (Synonymes, 2019), a primarily French film about the fascist prostitution of national identity. It’s an anti-bildungsroman in which the protagonist starts off not knowing what he wants, and ends with the realization that what we want can’t be found.

Tom Mercier delivers a physical and fully embodied performance as Yoav, a young Israeli man who runs off to Paris, vowing never to return or even speak Hebrew again. The first sequence of the film contrives to deprive him of everything except (barely) his life, whence he’s rescued by Émile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte). This couple is the epitome of the French bourgeoisie, living in a lavish apartment paid for by Émile’s rich father. Émile whiles away the days writing pretentiously purple literary prose while she practices the oboe for an upcoming orchestral performance. Both are always elegantly attired, and Émile’s multi-layered winter raiment contrasts strongly with Yoav’s tank-top and overcoat ensemble.

Yoav has escaped Israel in disgust at its culture of toxic militant masculinity. (The film was co-funded by the Israeli Ministry of Culture; I’m assuming they didn’t read the script.) He finds the exact opposite in Émile, who is cultured, refined, handsome, and a bisexual more gay than straight. Yoav spends his days working security at the Israeli Embassy, the only job that he can find as a sans-papiers, and his nights telling anecdotes from his life and family to Émile and Caroline, most of which recount absurd situations involving the military. The narrative, mimicking Yoav’s daily life experience, is structured impressionistically, and scenes of him walking the streets are shot on a shaky hand-held camera that turns his surroundings into a disorienting blur.

When he’s alone, Yoav recites French vocabulary words to himself, grouping them by synonym and assonance. When telling his stories, he often uses five adjectives when one would suffice. The first level of the title thus refers to his inability to express himself accurately, a sign of his cultural otherness. The typically taciturn and withdrawn Yoav is only energized when, either unobserved alone at home or lost in the crowd on a dance floor, he lets loose his physicality and bounces around, limbs flailing, releasing the negative energy generated by confinement in the prism of an inadequate language.

Given Yoav’s ideology, he inevitably loses his embassy job – where the culture is such that the head of security (Olivier Loustau) organizes weekly street fights with neo-Nazis – and he advertises his sculpted military physique for modeling gigs. He gets one: a pornographer asks him to do degrading things to himself (in a single, uncensored long take) and speak in Hebrew, too, “for the sound of it.” Markedly, this scene of self-alienation is the only time we hear him speak Hebrew. And it’s not he who speaks, but the Semitic man figuratively manhandled by the pornographer into an object of desire. A similar vibe is given off in another scene, a flashback to when Yoav won a military decoration. During the ceremony, two showgirls in military uniform sing and sashay to “Hallelujah La’Olam,” the 1979 Eurovision winner. Despite our knowledge that Hebrew is spoken in daily Israeli life, the contrast between the wannabe-sensual performance and the religious significance of the language is hard to ignore here.

Tom Mercier and Louise Chevillotte in Synonyms (2019)

Émile is attracted to Yoav, but it’s Caroline who seduces him. Some critics have called the role of Caroline underwritten, but she’s exactly what she needs to be to fulfill the stereotypical ideal of a French woman: young, pretty, cultured, and, according to Émile, sexually voracious. When Émile proposes that Yoav and Caroline marry so Yoav can get citizenship, the newly affianced couple hugs after Émile leaves, and here the use of hand-held DV marks this as the only time in the whole film when Yoav feels unreserved joy. (The cinematographer is Shai Goldman.)

His joy is cut short, however, by his citizenship integration class, where he’s forced to memorize various useless factoids such as the list of Fifth Republic presidents, learn the bloodthirsty lyrics to “La Marseillaise,” and answer a series of true-or-false questions on such demeaning topics such as whether it’s okay to kill your wife for infidelity. In escaping one fascistically militant culture, he has apparently stumbled into another, albeit one buried under layers of refinement. But as the baseline for citizenship, French militancy is positioned as the foundation of all that culture, and its role as undisclosed bedrock makes it all the worse. Yoav’s unmoored-again identity offers a second understanding of the film’s title: echoing Wittgenstein's notion that synonyms are united by "family resemblances" rather than a relation to a pure word from which they derive their semantic similarity, the film suggests that Yoav's two national identities, like synonyms, revolve around an ineffable, even empty center.

Enraged by this revelation, Yoav goes berserk on Caroline during the intermission of her orchestra’s performance, sardonically shouting those demeaning test questions into their faces, but instead of verbally engaging him the orchestra drowns him out with their instruments. As they file past Yoav to go back onstage, Caroline gives him one last, long, pitying look, a look fraught with irony in that, though she pities him for being unworthy of Frenchness, it’s she who’s blind to the violence of being French.

The final shot, of Yoav trying to break down Émile and Caroline’s door, is obviously symbolic of his need to enter into French national culture (and his sense that, with his newly acquired wisdom, he’s entitled to), or any national culture, really. If the utopian ideal of the film is Yoav shouting “There are no more borders!” (which is what gets him fired from the embassy), the inescapable reality is another line, uttered when Yoav takes the rights to his anecdotes back from Émile: “They’re not much, but they’re mine.” We’re all rooted in one place or another, but what if that place is a no-man’s land?

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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