VIFF Review: ‘Synonyms’ is maddening, heartbreaking, frustrating, challenging, and contains a performance you definitely shouldn’t miss

Synonyms begins with the protagonist Yoav (Tom Mercier) breaking into a luxurious but unoccupied apartment looking for a place to sleep for the night. The clothes on his back, the few things in his bag, are all of his worldly possessions. After a night in the austere accommodations, he takes a shower, and during that shower, someone steals all of his clothes and his bag.

Frantically he runs, naked and dripping wet, down the stairs and after the thief, but it’s too late; his things are gone. Rather than chase them into the street, he returns to the apartment and passes out in the tub, seemingly waiting for death.

This franticness is at the heart of Yoav’s character. He’s in France feeling his past self with the sole, desperate intention to form a new self. But is that even possible?

It’s in the tub where he is found by Emile and Caroline (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte), wealthy neighbours who take him in, clothe him, and give him money. They are the perennial couple from a Fence film: he is sexually ambiguous, an author who never produces any work, and she is a classical musician content who is just kind of be around because she’s underwritten in the part.

For the rest of the film, Yoav is tied to these two. They support him, and he tells them stories of his past. The emotion between the three is palpable as the inevitable love triangle between them solidifies.

In the meantime, Yoav also finds work at the Israeli embassy, a curious choice for someone so desperate to escape Israel and who refuses to speak Hebrew except when absolutely necessary and even then through a clenched jaw. Here he is battered with reminders of the past he’s trying to escape, of the culture he seems to despise and the kind of person he used to be.

Mercier brings tension and unpredictability to the performance, so much so that it’s hard to believe that this is his first credited appearance in anything. There’s a madness about him, a wildness that threatens to explode at any moment in every scene. Yoav never feels at home, least of all in his own skin, and Mercier makes you believe that in every frame of the film.

The film’s title comes from Yoav’s devotion to the French dictionary that he carries with him at all times, constantly going over and over the words of his new chosen language. He studies so furiously whilst walking that he even refuses to look up and see the city around him, refusing to be seduced by the beauty of the city and determined to force his way into that new self in a very direct and deliberate way.

We never really get a clear picture of what he’s fleeing back home in Isreal, even after his father visits. There are flashbacks, but they are to moments and not any clear scenes. Whatever he’s fleeing, his path away from it was never going to be as easy as adopting a new language and a stylish coat.


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