'Synonyms' Review: A Chilling Examination Of Masculinity And Nationalism [NYFF 2019]

A penetrating vacancy haunts the expression of Yoav (Tom Mercier) as he twirls a postcard rack at a French tourist stop. His soul had gone AWOL ever since he deserted his military training in Israeli for Paris. He seems to be making up his own initiation process along the way. Pulling from director Nadav Lapid's grappling with his Israeli identity, Synonyms is an off-kilter feature about the uneasy metamorphosis of identity, disillusionment, and masculinity when settling in a new homeland.Yoav had no breezy start in France. After enduring a humiliating theft that leaves him naked in an unfurnished flat, he finds a support system in a young bourgeoisie French couple, Emile and Caroline (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte). From there, he leaps into a psychological vortex to refashions himself into a Frenchman. To do that, he cleanses himself of his Israeli heritage, swearing off Hebrew and rehearsing his French. While he toys around with an intellectual and romantic love triangle with his new French companions, his Israeli past pricks at him in indelible ways.Yoav subconsciously picks up on the parallels between French nationalism with Israeli nationalism. For example, French security recruiters train him to racially profile possible terrorist suspects—to which he answers, "Yes." Perhaps in response to this, he experiences a fit of ill-executed experimental nobility when he liberates people lined up for naturalization at the Israeli embassy, hollering, "There are no borders."He finds himself accosted by compatriots of toxic masculinity. He observes as his Israeli compatriot Micah, (Olivier Loustau) swaggering with masculine conceit, veers close to French strangers in the subway to assert, "I am Jewish." When Micah greets his head of security (Uria Hayik, who delivers a percussive speech demonstrating military tenacity), the chief seizes Micah into a headlock and they tussle on his office desk since combat between those breed of men are as customary as a handshake. Yoav is quite the rebel in response to his military conditioning. He voices veneration for the Greek hero Hector not because of his strength but because of his open fear. It baffles his co-worker when he mentions that Hector fled in fear from the Achilles, as if retreating is dignified. "You're for the coward," Micah scoffs.Synonyms doesn't overtly concern itself with other human costs of Yoav's martial origins outside of his psyche. But there linger insinuations that he knows that he would have caused casualties had he stayed longer. He flashes back to a shooting range as he fires in sync with music, as bullet-holes appear onto the human-shaped target, as if to numb himself from himself or adjust to the tune of taking livesAnd the more Yoav sits through integration classes, the more he recognizes—or senses—he is trading one unsavory nationalism for another and his rebellion is simply conformity. In a disconcerting classroom scene, he sings the French anthem, ordering his teacher to raise the volume so he may condition himself to elevate his allegiance. As he raises the volume, it sinks in that there's an intuitive "been there, done that" brashness driving his French fervor.Shaï Goldman's cinematography quivers along with Yoav's dissociative mode in surveying his environment, employing a shaky camera in select sequences when Yoav paces himself with inner torrent. Despite his zealousness to embrace France, he is unable to absorb his new homeland as a whole, glancing but not quite gazing. One of the few times he looks up, he glances up and down the Notre Dame cathedral in a zip. Mercier's physicality constantly beguiles. In a moment, he performs his military conditioning by doing the military crawl through a maelstrom of a dancing crowd. Then another moment, he's devoted—perhaps a little too devoted—to his French integration and dancing with the crowd. The third act goes astray into a muddled-for-muddled sake payoff. There comes a point where Yoav scurries to reassemble the fragments of his former identity but I wasn't so sure if the character swerve was traceable. Still, I never got tired of Synonyms raving to its own tune./Film Rating: 8 out of 10