Tom Mercier in Synonyms
Now that the 69th Berlin International Film Festival has concluded it is even easier to see that startlingly few films in the centerpiece competition were able to escape the doldrums of average, straightforward and unsurprising cinema. There was a chance, in the lead-up to the closing ceremony, that the awards would double down on an unforgivably mediocre selection, yet as the festival ended there was a blast of hope that symbolically bodes well for next year, the 70th edition, to be newly headed by Locarno Festival’s former Artistic Director, Carlo Chatrian. German director Angela Schanalec, whose last film The Dreamed Path was at Locarno in 2016, took home the prize for best director for one of the festival’s best films, I Was at Home, But..., in a remarkable gesture of support for an approach to filmmaking that is far away from commercial concerns. And the Golden Bear went to Synonyms, the third feature by Israel director Nadav Lapid, whose last film, the wry and subtly provocative The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), was recently remade by Hollywood, and whose first, Policeman (2011), premiered at Locarno under Chatrian's predecessor, Olivier Père. Lapid’s new film, set in Paris, while not as lucid as his previous features, indeed proved to be the kind of bracing, inventive, even unwieldy film one hopes for from a major festival’s competition.
As is befitting the director’s first feature made outside Israel, Synonyms is about an Israeli, Yoav (the taut, pent-up Tom Mercier, making a startling debut), who flees to France, refusing to speak Hebrew, and throws himself with aggravated fixation on trying to build a life away from his homeland. Yet already by the first scene, where he arrives to crash in a completely empty flat, finds it freezing cold, and while showering has his clothing and belongings mysteriously stolen, does Lapid suggest that despite surreptitiously shooting on the streets of Paris, Synonyms takes place in a story-world several degrees away from reality. This sense is soon confirmed when Yoav’s almost frozen-to-death body is found by a couple of neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte, Lover for a Day). They are so beautiful and posh, so characteristically French—one struggling to finish a novel while living off his family’s income from “a factory,” the other a plaintive oboe player, both soon waiting in the wings to sleep with their muscular Israeli discovery—that we know we’ve escaped normal drama and are heading towards something more brash.
This subtly unreal, nearly conceptual exaggeration could also be found in The Kindergarten Teacher, where a young schoolboy had a preternatural ability to compose evocative poetry. Yoav struggles to form his alternate life in Paris with the kind of disgruntled fixation of a 19th century psychological novel, physically restless, unpredictable in thought and deed, and prone to both fits of impassivity and over-excitement. In the film’s first shots of Yoav making his way through Paris on foot, and frequently in other street shots, as Yoav monomaniacally practices French on his virgin tongue, Lapid shifts to a nearly first-person perspective of rawer, more antic digital texture. Trundling around wearing a bright yellow, couture hand-me-down trench given to him by Emile, Synonyms is not far from some of Leos Carax’s films whose outsider-misfits convulse and contort themselves to live their own vision of romance. Stealing postcards Kurt Cobain, Van Gogh, Napoleon, and a footballer on his wall, and telling stories of his life, his family’s life, soldiering, and the life of his childhood hero, Hector of Troy, to anyone who will listen, Yoav is styled—or self-styled—as an untamed romantic force. He's trying to re-form a completely new self in an entirely different country far from the pressurized legacies of violence at home: the Holocaust, terrorism against the British, his father’s and his own military service, as well as Arabs killed by Yoav are all fleetingly mentioned in his periodic bursts of storytelling. He gives these stories to Emile to use in his unfinished book in a fit of abrupt generosity, then takes them back. He struggles to fit in, moving from his new friend’s flat to one of Taxi Driver-like asceticism, gets hired as security at Israel’s Consulate General and is promptly fired after letting in an crowd by proclaiming that there’s “no border,” has unconsummated intimacy with Emile and a kind of inevitable love affair with Caroline, falls in with (and then forgets) a couple of violent expats, one of whose idea of fun is to go around Paris proclaiming he is Israeli and Jewish, hoping to get into brawls. Yoav models for a man who makes him strip naked, play with himself and talk in Hebrew, and later chases French citizenship. In a class required for the process, the teacher instructs everyone that France is “secular, secular, secular,” where you can’t slaughter your cheating wife or beat your gay son, and tells the class cheerfully that in this country, “there is no god.”
Pitched somewhere between manic sincerity and dry comedy, Lapid makes sure we never have a sense of where the story will go, and his direction from scene to scene is always deftly surprisingly. Something utterly critical, existentially and spiritually roiling, is inside Yoav, yet because Lapid keeps us on the sensual, materialist exterior, favoring a drama of bodies and concepts, it is frequently difficult to discern what exactly is specifically at stake for this tormented man. But there is no doubt, with the film’s direct reference to Israeli nationhood and Yoav’s flight from a military history to the bourgeois lifestyle of Paris, where he desires to find “the city’s heart,” that the man is also embodying something bigger, the vacillation between two poles of moral citizenship, perhaps each equally repellant in their own way. A tragicomic drama of personal dislocation, Synonyms’ unexpected and sly provocations are welcome; while its motivations are frequently unclear, its drive and spirit, its tactile feeling of grasping the world firmly and shaking it vigorously, are all the more refreshing when so much of art cinema settles for polite discretion and a fear of ruffling feathers.
NOTEBOOK: This film starts with a pretty big dick front and center—how much of this project began by looking at Israeli masculinity and manliness?
NADAV LAPID: I can tell you, since you mention it—but the first time I saw Tom [Mercier] naked was on the first day of shooting, and it’s strange because, as you said, you cast someone who’s going to be naked in maybe, I don’t know, 30% of the movie, and maybe 2 or 3 weeks [before the shoot] we have all sorts of sessions with the Assistant Director, they started to ask if we know how Tom looks when he’s totally naked. And we didn’t! It was a contribution to the movie [laughs].
I think that for me there’s a question about the movie: whether it’s specific to Israel or not; whether it could have been a film about a Swiss running away from Switzerland. Because we all, or most of us, love our chains, while others look at our identity as our worst enemy. Whether or not it’s specific to Israel… I guess both. I think there’s a certain specificity, but let’s say the demon he’s running away from is an Israeli demon. Maybe it could have been a different demon? But in the film it’s an Israeli demon, or Israeli politics, or an Israeli soul. When I think about it, he’s not running away, it’s not political in the narrow sense of the term, because it’s not like if tomorrow there would have been a different prime minister and he had done this, this and this, that he would have said: “oh, great!” He’s running away, I think, from the existential melody of Israel, the music from its soul. And this soul, I think, is characterized by strong men with muscular bodies and unlimited devotion and love for the country. And he’s an extremely athletic man who has an unlimited hate for his country, attracted also by these strong [Israeli] men [living in Paris] who love their country, and at the same time, hating them. So I think the body is the contradiction inside this project, and it’s not an accident that he’s trying to annihilate his own body throughout the movie.
NOTEBOOK: You were saying how in a way Yoav didn’t have to be from Israel. Similarly, do you feel like France is an arbitrary choice as a place to flee to, or do you see it as an inverted society specifically compared to that of Israel?
LAPID: I think there’s something, at least in this fantasy of France, this imaginary France. France is not only a state, it’s a concept—and it’s a concept which sees itself as a superior concept. Maybe they are right. They are the masters of revolution and the masters of mise en scène! So one should run away from Hell to Paradise, in order to discover how Paradise is maybe a different version of Hell? I don’t know. But France, I think, was important. And Israel, I think, was important. There’s also—and again, I’m talking about the conceptual and structural aspect of it, because when you get to the details of course…—but I always felt like the relationship between Israel and France was fascinating, because in a way [the French] have anything but the stories. They have elegance, they have style, they have the structural thought, the way to analyze, the means, the glory, they have the prestige. But somehow I felt that there was always a jealousy, an envy. So there is something in the meeting between these two specific places.
NOTEBOOK: While initially the film’s mise en scène appears realistic, very quickly I realized that there’s a large degree of exaggeration and perhaps satire that exists within this realism. In a way, Yoav is the ultimate Israeli expat soldier, and in a way the French couple is like the ultimate French couple. How did you balance this fine line of tone?
LAPID: First of all, for me it’s very natural. I don’t know how to do it differently, it’s not like it was a decision to make a parody or not to make a parody. But what I think is that you should be always walking on an unstable ground. I think that very powerful and authentic moments in our life—for instance, when someone says something funny, and we smile, and we look at them, and we see that they are not smiling—I think that this is something. The film is funny, but it’s not funny. It’s a satire, but the satire is totally realistic. I think that the way you enrich it is by creating contradictions between the cinematic aspects, and the content. For instance, there is a scene where they come to meet this crazy Jewish guy, and they are struggling [fighting] on [his office] table. So they are struggling on the table, it’s funny and it’s satire and it’s parodic and realistic. But the way the camera deals with it is very normal, like it’s a daily or not a very fascinating thing. It’s a full shot, the camera is following them and it takes quite a lot of time, there are a lot of details. And also the camera keeps on following them afterwards when they get up and they shake hands, and again it takes time—it’s losing the momentum, but losing this narrative, it’s not a punch, it’s real life. And this, I think, is exactly what transforms it from a parody to a way of revealing the truth of the real nature of the substance of the event, of what you see.
NOTEBOOK: And for example, in that scene, is this staging idea something that you were already imagining when you were writing or was it something you found on the set?
LAPID: I hardly find things on the set. I mean, I can, but imagining and revealing the essence of the movie, cinematically, is the process for me, and the process I find most joyful. And what I really, really love is to understand and to grasp the main essence of the thing, and then to have enough time while shooting in order to contradict it. To slap it, a little bit. So I knew how I felt [before shooting]. And about what I said before… parody is a subjective outlook on reality. When the camera is objective and the outlook is subjective, then I think it’s interesting.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting that you describe the camera as objective in that scene. I agree, but I think one of the things I found most bracing about this film was—
LAPID: —that the camera was not objective?
NOTEBOOK: That the camera was not objective! I was never sure how a scene was going to continue or end. And the example, there’s this marvelous scene at the tourist bar, where you get a medium shot of two women dancing,—the song is great, the dance is wonderful—but then you get the reverse-shot so you see the dancing still but you realize the Yoav and the angry Israeli are in the background, they’re talking, the Israeli approaches the women, and they don’t acknowledge, he pushes through their dance, and the scene somehow keeps going, the camera dollies pans and he starts heckling a couple at the bar. In that scene, five things happen in one shot, and I never knew what the focus of the scene was, why it was happening until it all came together.
LAPID: I love this scene. I thought that—regarding what we were talking about—I must say that the film has something literary or intellectual because they talk about mythology, but they talk about mythology in a bar where they have to shout! I think that, for me, one of the biggest challenges is to bring at least half of the chaotic aspect of life to the screen. I think that in a way one of the biggest problems of a big, big majority of movies is that they have intentions, and intentions turn them sterile. We all have intentions, but the question is how to cling to these intentions without losing the truth of the moment, the vivacity and the strangeness of life. And this, I think, is the strangeness of life. Also, for me, it’s super important that each demographic and each person will feel as if it’s their own film. Because this is life—you have your own story and I have mine.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of stories, The Kindergarten Teacher and now this film put a really strong emphasis on the underlying power of word. Since there’s no more Hebrew for Yoav he’s chanting these French words like mantras—and not only words but he’s obsessed with storytelling. He has a million stories and he wants to give the stories, take them back. Why is language and storytelling so important to Yoav?
LAPID: Let’s say that on the narrative level Yoav is doing something very radical, but at the same time very logical. He decides to detach himself from Israel, to cure, to try to heal himself from this old sickness. I think that he understands—maybe without being conscious—that it’s totally useless to run away from Israel if you keep on talking their language. Let’s say the demonic aspect of the state exists also in the words, in the language. So, in a way, if you run away but keep on talking in this language, you are running away only in order to keep dropping a drop of the Israeli essence each time when it comes out of your mouth. You have to deny the existence of these words, and then you have to find new words, and these words are also your way to redeem yourself, your way to redemption. So these words are like a prayer, and the importance of these words is not only what they say but that they have a different melody. A French melody, that’s very different. So you should already celebrate their melody beyond their signification, their meaning. So suddenly words are… these words are also declaration of victory, of triumph. The words have very wide importance and existence. And also, you know, when you talk in a foreign language you have a different consciousness to the words. It’s as if you feel, in your tongue and in your lips, sharp words that go out of your mouth. Sometimes, for instance, you can really, really love words that say horrible things.
NOTEBOOK: His list of bad words to describe Israel sounds beautiful.
NOTEBOOK: A Hebrew accent speaking French…
LAPID: And sometimes he talks so quickly, as if he was a rapper! So this is the words… and the stories, sometimes it’s a bit connected because the stories is the magic you do with words. When you put a lot of words together, suddenly it becomes… with stories, it’s not only about what they tell, but also about the way that he performs them. He dances his story, he moves his story. There’s this moment, I don’t know to what extent you can grasp it like this, but there’s this moment where they sit in Buttes-Chaumont and he’s silent, he’s a little bit detached, and suddenly he starts to talk and tell a strange and totally uninteresting story about the pump. And I thought it was so strange, he pushes to the end that it doesn’t matter what you talk about as long as you say it with a certain… there’s a detachment between the words and what they signify. The stories are all he has to give in exchange for everything, for the money, the clothes, for affection. But I think that he is not prudent. If, at the beginning of the film, there is a kind of symbolic death, and he gets rid of whatever ties him to the past—he’s reborn, naked as a baby—he’s not prudent enough because, of course, the stories tie him again to Israel. I think that, in my head at least, you have here someone who will someday become an artist.
NOTEBOOK: He clearly has the soul of an artist. The torment, as well.
LAPID: I think that it’s something throughout the film: he discovers what does it mean to be an auteur. At the beginning, he can share his stories with the whole world, he can give his old stories because he doesn’t have this notion of “auteur”… it’s a bit like the kid in The Kindergarten Teacher who doesn’t understand the extent to which he is a poet. The poems are his poems. And then, when Yoav takes back his stories, he tells him that “they are not so special, but they are mine.” So suddenly he understands that the stories…
NOTEBOOK: —they are some creation of his. Now a final question. Yoav wakes up and thinks he can extract himself from his past, he stops speaking Hebrew, he gives away his stories. And yet we still see scenes in Israel, three scenes. It seems to me a very important decision to include visualization—in whatever register of reality—because you could easily have said that once he’s in France, it’s all referred to, but it doesn’t exist. But you showed Israel, to some degree.
LAPID: I think there are wonderful movies that are based on frustrating the spectator, all the time being something very sober like this. There’s something in this movie that cannot hold its own desire. A kind of expansion in the movie, when [Yoav] talks about something, then you want to see it, and then suddenly it’s two girls who sing “Hallelujah” [at a military awards ceremony in Israel]. There’s something in this movie that’s carnivalesque, there’s a playful aspect and there’s also this terrible party: they dance and they sing and they kiss and they fight. So, for me, I just couldn’t imagine giving up this idea of this military target [in another flashback]. While shot, it’s like a new version of playing the song by Pink Martini, "Je ne veux pas travailler.” Let’s play it this time with the voice of a machine gun! I think in a way that maybe on the top of it is this moment when you see his heroic friend, this [imagined] Hector, dragged—but not dragged on the muddy streets of Greece but on the main road of Tel Aviv. And then it’s like the place becomes unhistorical, because everything there is unhistorical, because Israel is also an unhistorical place that mixes Holocaust and Bible on a daily basis. And in France, there’s something unhistorical, because there’s a France of Victor Hugo and revolution and “La Marseillaise.”