Assimilation and the struggle to fit in are always at the center of Nadav Lapid’s films. His protagonist in Policeman navigates the complicated terrain of making his personal life fit into his professional world, while in The Kindergarten Teacher, a young child’s prodigious skills lead the title character to take extreme measures to nurture his talent. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the little boy in Teacher, Yoav, shares a name with the hero of Synonyms, a complex young man who flees the Israeli army for liberty in France.
The Yoav of Synonyms is played by the extraordinary Tom Mercier, who within the first 10 minutes of the film finds himself completely naked in an abandoned Paris apartment. As if reborn into a world to seek acceptance, he soon befriends a couple (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte) who try to help him become “French.”
Lapid’s unique eye for camera positions and attentive, un-intrusive character development turn Synonyms into what feels like a slow-burn thriller — except Yoav’s enemy is too large and amorphous to materialize. He’s battling the patriarchy, his own pervasive masculinity, the oppression of an army he doesn’t believe in, his own perception of being “French.”
Synonyms won the Golden Bear at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival and made its NYC debut at the New York Film Festival. As it opens in theaters I spoke to Lapid about the themes he touches on in the film.
Jose Solís: I’ve been an immigrant in and to several places for more than 15 years now. And the first thing I thought after watching Synonyms was: how is he telling my story? How does he know my life?
Nadav Lapid: Oh, wow.
JS: I was curious to know if people come up to you after watching the film to tell you that this is the exact same thing that happened to them. How were you able to tell something so specific that has such a universal ring to it?
NL: I must tell you — I’m very happy by what you said because people comment on the filmmaking and political ideas; of course, the film is a thing created by the combination of content and form. But this feeling of not being at home, being a foreigner and a stranger, with all the good and bad things it brings — and there’s also your relationship to a new language that is not your own and what it does to words. Many people who’ve had this kind of experience speak to the extent to which they relate to the movie, how they find in the dialect or in the character their own experiences.
JS: You mention languages. In the movie, we see Yoav being obsessed with new French words and I wonder if we’ll ever reach a point where languages become obsolete. I know this is very metaphysical, but do you think that film language can in any way become universal? Is it something we all can recognize?
NL: Based on my own experience, I must say that films are a tool used all over the world. I’ve accompanied the movie all over, in China and in Japan and in Portugal, in the US now, and then in Russia. I used to think that the movie would be relevant mainly for Israelis and French people discussing the same national identities. I don’t like to use the word universal because it’s a word people use to sell you a project, but I’ve talked to people of all nations and they find huge intimacy with the movie. They have spoken to me about their culture.
There are certain people who became curious and others were really shaken in both cases they can be served from the cinematic language instead of the content. I always had the feeling that a lot of the visual and narrative codes are so integrated in the minds and souls of people, including people who have little experience with movies in their lives, but they all recognize, I don’t know, a woman looks, looks at the man in a certain way in the middle of the movie and know what they are feeling. Film language became international which is why filmmakers are obliged to renovate it and to deconstruct it. The most joyful task you have as a filmmaker is to broaden and explore this language.
JS: And that makes me think also about the scene near the end of the movie when Yoav is going to that naturalization finishing class and you show us a classroom full of immigrants and people who aren’t white. It struck me that the France that Yoav thinks he’s arriving into will no longer be that white country. He’ll have to broaden that French he’s learning. Can you share some insight about setting up that moment?
NL: You can see in the film that behind this tolerant facade there’s certain incapacity to integrate people completely for who they are, with their stories, their way of thinking. They have to learn history through the way the French see it and then they can be integrated. So to which extent can they remain themselves? On the other hand, they may speak French but they use words from their own language and sometimes the same grammatical structure, so they create another variation of the language. I think it’s one of the most fascinating and beautiful things. It’s a very optimistic phenomenon in anything: you can feel it in cinematic language, too. You always feel it though. If you think about North African directors who are now working in France, they are deconstructing language and their contributions to local cinema are marvelous.
JS: Staying with the theme, when you dream, whose films do they look like?
NL: Who directs my dreams?
NL: I think I’ve been asked 20,000 questions about this movie, but never this one. I’d like my dreams to be directed by Leos Carax; that sounds to me like a dream I’d love to be in. In my dreams, when I’m in pre-production and thinking about the shooting plan, sometimes I find great illusion and invention. Sometimes my dreams enable me to detach myself from certain trivialities of the filmmaking process, which are dangerous and the filmmakers should avoid.
JS: I love the musical sequences in your films. Have you ever wanted to do a full-on movie musical?
NL: It’s nice of you to say that. I love shooting dance scenes. You know when people watch my movies, they think I’m a great dancer, which I’m not. What I like about it is that I feel, in my movies, people dance as themselves, they declare their existence, they come to the camera or the camera comes to them, which is very liberating. Also, the film is dancing; it reveals and exposes itself through the dancing. You’re not the first person to tell me to make a musical — it would be great.
JS: Synonyms is the first movie you’ve shot outside of Israel. A lot of it takes place in Yoav’s apartment, the only place where he can speak Hebrew and feel more like himself while trying to learn this new culture. Is the apartment, which is so little and oppressive but also freeing, what Israel can feel like for you?
NL: I remember that when I go to Paris, I suddenly realize the sun and the sky are larger, the sky is open. The film is also about an endless movement, endless nonstop libration and the physical movement and then the linguistic movement and then a chain of thoughts and ideas. You can only find this in an open place. And of course you take this restless lion and put him in a five-by-four studio — remember the scene where he’s dancing in his own apartment and bounces off all the walls?
Synonyms is now playing in select theaters.