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Synonyms (Synonymes)

GOLDEN BEAR WINNER! Israeli film set in France mocks nationalism from both nations with an absurdist tone reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos - live from Berlin


Young Israeli Yoav (Tom Mercier) has defected his homeland, a country that he has learned to despise. He arrives in Paris, but he’s not off to a good start, either. His clothes are stolen while he’s taking a bath and almost freezes to death (literally) in the bathtub. Luckily for him, two young locals Emile (Quentin Domaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) come to his rescue. They offer him the opportunity of a new start in this great and promising European country.

Yoav wholeheartedly embraces his newly founded “Frenchness”. He refuses Israel in every conceivable way. He describes he country as “disgusting, foul, vile, fetid, horrific, odious, bad-hearted, creepy, nasty” and more. He has a habit of reading out synonyms (hence the film title) in an attempt to improve his French and prove his allegiance to the European country. He refuses to speak Hebrew. He explains that his grandfather refused to speak Yiddish upon arriving in Israel because the language reminded him of the Holocaust. He now feels the same way towards his mother tongue. The analogy is crystal-clear: Israel is the Holocaust.

French nationalism, however, isn’t rosy at all. Yoav has to take citizenship lessons where students are asked to sing the national anthem La Marseillaise. The lyrics are riddled with xenophobia and calls to violence: “To arms citizens, form your battalions. March, march. Let impure blood water our furrows”. Plus he earns money by posing naked for a photographer in very awkward and sexual positions. He’s unfazed. He seems determined to become French, whatever it takes. He marries Caroline and wishes to practice the French values of “freedom”. Will he eventually realise that such freedom can also become a handicap?

Ultimately, the “synonyms” in the film title refer to nationalism. Israeli nationalism and French nationalism, they are synonymous.

Synonyms is a two-hour long absurdist film. A little like Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009), except that the prison here are the confines of nationalism (instead of a villa somewhere in Greece). The dialogues and the actions are wilfully contrived and artificial-sounding. And there’s a lot of language play (sadly, much gets lost in translation, and will only make sense to French speakers). The problem is that this absurdist streak is so extreme that it alienates viewers. The director probably intended so, but it also comes across as a little pretentious at times. Plus there’s too much intertext. To boot, there’s little examination of what makes Israel so “evil”. One sequence shows Yoav’s cringeworthy memories of the Israeli army, but that’s about it.

Synonyms is showing in competition at the 69th Berlin Film Festival taking place right now. It’s unlikely to win anything.

By Victor Fraga - 14-02-2019

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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