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Synonyms 2019

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A young Israeli man absconds to Paris to flee his nationality, aided by his trusty Franco-Israeli dictionary.

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About the Synonyms 💬

Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli, turns up in Paris, hopeful that France and French will save him from the madness of his country.

Based on the real-life experiences of writer-director Nadav Lapid, SYNONYMS is a tragicomic puzzle about cultural identities and the challenges of putting down roots in a new place.


Q: SYNONYMS was inspired by your stay in Paris in the early 2000s. Can you tell us about that time in your life?

Nadav Lapid: Eighteen months after completing my military service, I started studying philosophy at Tel Aviv University. I wrote on sports in a hip weekly and I began writing short stories. At the time, cinema was of no particular interest to me, and overall life was beautiful. But one day, as if I had heard a voice out of nowhere, like Joan of Arc or Abraham the patriarch, I realized I had to leave Israel. Leave right then, immediately and forever. Uproot myself from the country, flee, save myself from an Israeli destiny. Ten days later, I landed at Charles-de-Gaulle airport. I chose France because of my admiration for Napoleon, my passion for Zidane, and a couple of Godard movies I had seen two months earlier. I had basic French, no permit or visa, and I knew no one. But I was determined never to come back. To live and die in Paris.

I refused to speak Hebrew. I cut all ties with Israelis. I devoted myself completely to the obsessive reading of a French dictionary, and a few odd jobs to get by. I lived in poverty and solitude. I counted every cent. I ate the same meal every day - the simplest and cheapest I could come up with.

One day, I made a friend, a French friend, the best friend I ever had. A strong bond developed between us, despite and perhaps because of the disparity - socially, culturally and mentally - between us. In my eyes, he was the ultimate Frenchman, whom I wanted to resemble with all my heart, while also wanting, with my Napoleonic and adolescent megalomania, to outstrip and subdue him.

Q: It was at that time that you discovered the cinema and cinephilia.

Nadav Lapid: Yes, thanks to my friend and Paris, I came to see the cinema as essential, absolutely vital. He taught me what a shot, a scene and a single-shot scene were. He taught me that cinema could be a subject of thought and debate. He showed me that the only thing as beautiful as a beautiful film is the ability to talk about the film, dissect the film and write about the film.

Besides that, life in Paris was difficult, especially on a mental level. Poverty, monotony, marginality. My French fantasies drifted ever farther away, even as my French became ever more refined. In the end, I decided to apply to La Femis, a school that I pictured as a gateway to the cinema, France and French cinema. I was rejected at the very last stage of the admissions process. Looking back now, I realize I was insufficiently trained. That's when an Israeli publishing house decided to release a collection of my short stories. Paris seemed like a dead-end to me. With a sense of total defeat, I turned my back on France and returned to Israel.

Q: SYNONYMS seems to dialogue with your previous films: Yoav is the child's name in The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), his friends Emile and Caroline have the same first names as the protagonists in the short feature, Emile's Girlfriend (2006), and the virile rituals of masculinity are an extension of those in Policeman (2011). Do you see each film as part of a single work of art?

Nadav Lapid: Even if I don't plan it that way, clearly my films - shorts as much as features - make up a single movement. They all speak the same phrases with the same music. Naturally, there are tactical variations and nuances that reflect different stages of life - different angles and perspectives, themes observed sometimes from the left, sometimes from the right. Almost unwittingly, intuitively, I choose the same names over and over. And if that's how it is, why hide it? If these are the same people, why give them different names?

Q: Yoav's obsession with suppressing his Israeli past and becoming French manifests itself through language first and foremost. Why?

Nadav Lapid: I think that language is the most intrinsic thing we have that we can change. It is difficult to change our bodies. The past cannot be changed. Yoav's body contains his past. It contains his essential nature, which he wishes to decapitate. I remember myself at the time mumbling French words like a prayer. The French language was my redemption.

As time goes by, Yoav is confronted by the disconnect between his French identity fantasy and real life. He realizes it might all end as it began - at a closed door. His attempts to avoid that abyss result in his language becoming increasingly radical. Radical in the sense of a desperate attachment to the words, syllables, diction and sounds of French. To that French prayer. Words become more important than sentences or context. Words rebel against their meaning. This is, moreover, a characteristic stage in a breakdown.

Q: The story of Hector and Achilles at the siege of Troy captures what is at work within the film itself. Why use that story?

Nadav Lapid: By identifying with Hector, even at age four, Yoav is already in revolt against the Israeli ethos - which is not only an ethos of victory, but also of the absolute prohibition of defeat. In Israel, we were all raised that way, and it's something we still believe. We have no right to lose, not even once. France, for example, has lost on several occasions. And it is still here. But for us, losing is synonymous with the end. That's why identifying with a loser is a revolt against the eternal sacralization of victory and the mythical perception of the victor as a hero. Some people might be inclined to link this Israeli taboo, this deep-rooted anxiety about the possibility of defeat, with the tragic Jewish experience, especially in the 20th century.

Yoav deliberately takes the side of the losers, but Hector is not only beaten by Achilles, the stronger man. Hector is beaten by a heroine who is even more terrifying that Achilles - death itself. Death, as Yoav understands at age four, is stronger even than heroism. Yoav has carried death on his back from that age. I also think that Yoav's unconscious (or conscious perhaps) choice of an existential reference drawn from Greek mythology rather than the bible (the ''natural'' choice for an Israeli), is already an outsider's choice.

Q: SYNONYMS offers a relatively morose depiction of the French bourgeoisie. Caroline and Emile, for example, form a quite jaded couple. They seem to want to help Yoav, but in fact, they take advantage of his presence to add spice to their relationship.

Nadav Lapid: Within the Yoav-Emile-Caroline triangle, a delicate, fragile tension develops between personal interest, exploitation, fascination and genuine love for each other. This tension also symbolizes the affection-rejection relationship between Israel and France.

Yoav's body is also the theatre of a war between Israeli and French core values. He is surrounded by people who represent one side or the other. Yaron and Emile, for example. Past memories on one side, present images on the other. Yoav progresses between his Israeli body and his French words. In that respect, it is hardly coincidental that he tortures his body, that he fights his body.

Q: Now that the film is finished, do you feel you have overcome your neurosis, the fracture linked to your dual relationship to France and Israel?

Nadav Lapid: I cannot say with any degree of certainty, but I suppose that sharing one's neuroses with others through art is a form of therapy.

Synonyms Movie Details 🎥

Directed by

Nadav Lapid

Writing Credits

Nadav Lapid

Haim Lapid


Tom Mercier

Quentin Dolmaire

Louise Chevillotte

Uria Hayik

Olivier Loustau

Yehuda Almagor

Christophe Paou

Léa Drucker

Cinematography by

Shai Goldman

Genres: France, Israel, Germany

Countries: Comedy, Drama

Synonyms Official Trailer

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