If I had to choose one word to summarize Nadav Lapid’s French/Israeli immigrant drama Synonyms, it would be “inexplicable.” It’s a film inexplicable in its creative decisions, inexplicable in its narrative wanderings, and inexplicable in its critical popularity. This was the film the judges at the Berlin International Film Festival watched and thought worthy of the Golden Bear, the very award given to masterpieces by Lumet, Bergman, Altman, and Fassbinder? This film? This unfocused, unmoored, meandering train wreck of too few ideas stretched across too many reels of celluloid? These revelations can only be described as mentioned above: inexplicable.
The film tentatively centers on a young Israeli named Yoav (Tom Mercier), who flees his homeland for the rainy streets of Paris. Eager to meld into his adopted country, he falls into a series of misadventures as he navigates France’s byzantine immigration process. Some of these include having his clothes stolen his first night in town, getting a disastrous security gig at the Israeli embassy, falling into a will-they-won’t-they homosexual relationship with a bourgeois trust-fund twenty-something, and getting hired for a nude photoshoot where he’s forced to strip naked (Mercier spends much of the film not just naked but yanking his erect penis), stick his fingers up his rectum, and scream Hebrew obscenities.
So it’s an immigrant picaresque; what’s the problem? Well, the issue is that the entire film feels like a series of improvised sketches Frankensteined together in an editing room with scarcely any goal other than reaching a two-hour runtime. It feels like the early semi-improvised films of John Cassavetes, but with the aching emotional interiors and coherent stylistic schemas replaced with go-nowhere provocations smothered by layers of philosophical pretentiousness and shock-value sexual theatrics. In the entire film, I counted only one scene where I could catch a glimmer of what Lapid was trying to say. While sneaking into a chic nightclub to scavenge scraps at the snack bar, Yoav gets caught up in a dance flash mob when Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” starts playing. At first he crawls through the legs of the posh Parisians, but finally he jumps onto a table, grabs one of the dancers, and joins in. But this glimpse is fleeting. Synonyms is the worst kind of bloated art film, one that leaves you wondering if it had anything to say to begin with.