Edinburgh Jamie Neish

Edinburgh 2019: Synonyms review

★★★★☆

Golden Bear-winning cultural assimilation drama Synonyms is expertly handled by its director Nadav Lapid. That of relocating, whether it be by city, country or even school, is an unsettling experience most can relate to, though it’s heightened – and duplicated – for that of lead character Yoav (Tom Mercier).

Having travelled from Israel, where he’s lived since he was born and was part of the military, Yoav finds himself in Paris, with the keys to an occupied flat with no heating. He sleeps, only to wake with his possessions missing, his calls to the fellow tenants unaided until the next morning when neighbours Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) and Emilie (Quentin Dolmaire) discover him unconscious – and ice cold – in the bathtub.

They briefly take Yoav in, furnish him with clothes, feed him and then send him off, this time to a bedsit on the other side of the Seine, where he cooks the same meal every night and uses what little he has to cover holes in the ceiling. The reasons for his abandonment of his former country and lifestyle inch out bit-by-bit over the course of the films two-hour run time. He was a troop in the Israeli army, though now refuses to speak a word of his mother-tongue, instead carrying around a French dictionary to help him survive.

Yoav develops bonds with both Caroline and Emilie; their own sensibilities and personalities polar opposites of one another. But there’s an underlying sense, through the breathless ways in which he strings sentences together, to his forceful, physical, and at times vulnerable, behaviour. It’s all incredibly well strung together by the two scriptwriters, almost as a barrage of ideas and themes that present themselves through monologues, delivered with clarity and deep-rooted emotion by Yoav, and in-turn Mercier, whose performance is nothing short of mesmerising to behold.

Mercier has a presence about him that’s unshakable, wonderfully captured in the way he besots both Caroline and Emilie, one attracted to his ruggedness and confidence, while the other overawed by his knowledge and understanding. Chevillotte and Dolmaire are both decent, too, though the film uses them more as figures to bounce off, motivate and aggravate Yoav than as individual characters in their own right. The political undertones that permeate the film are raw and fully charged, though it seems as though the script reached a certain stage in the process where an end-point couldn’t quite be worked out, as there’s no particular explosion to the fireworks that pop throughout.

As a film about assimilation, however, Synonyms truly succeeds. Yoav is a man lost, separated in body and soul from his past, while unsure of his place in the world while looking to the future. His is a feeling we’ve all experienced at a time in our lives, though the political, social and psychological angles are ramped up to an nth degree that would have benefitted from a climax. But then, in real life situations, a climax isn’t always possible when being shepherded from one place to another, all direction stripped from your control.

The full EIFF programme can be viewed at edfilmfest.org.uk.

Jamie Neish | @JamieNeish