Synonymes: A Vulnerable Journey into Identity
Synonymes is a story of struggle, of conflict, of strife, of aspiration and faith; it raises the question of identity, of whether we can truly leave behind who we are and where we came from. Yaov (brilliantly played by newcomer Tom Mercier) flees Israel for France in the hopes of starting his life anew, of escaping the ties of language, religion, and duty that bound him in his native land. The film opens on Yoav walking the streets of Paris on a dark, cold night, with nothing luggage and a sleeping bag. His few belongings are stolen while he takes a (sensual) shower in a majestic but empty apartment, leaving him no choice but to run naked around the building seeking help from an empathetic neighbor. No one responds to his pleas. Alone, freezing, and with only one thing to his name (a lip ring) Yoav admits defeat and slumps in the bathtub, with nothing but a slow trickle of water to keep him warm. This is Yoav’s rebirth. He wakes up surrounded by soon-to-be friends and the hope of a fresh start. Yoav doesn’t know what he’ll do in Paris exactly, except “be French.” He spends much of his time trying to become French and to bury his Israeli identity; he pins postcards of famous French historical figures on his wall, sings the French anthem louder and more enthusiastically than anyone in his French class, and refuses to speak Hebrew. As he walks the streets of Paris, Yoav practices the vocabulary he learned from his French dictionary: words like bestial, obscene, vulgar, fetid. Words that describe the life he is trying to forget. As his friend Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) predicts, it is not enough for Yoav to just “be French.” His only acquaintances in the country besides Emile and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) are Jewish. And Yoav finds himself telling Emile and Caroline stories about his past life - about his time in the Army, about how his mother humiliated him at a ceremony by laughing at the colonel, about the time he shot a machine gun to the tune of “Sympathique” by Pink Martini. It is no coincidence that the song reflects his future attitude: “je ne veux pas travailler, je ne veux pas déjeuner, je veux seulement oublier . . .” (I don’t want to work, I don’t want to eat lunch, I want only to forget…). It is Yoav’s lack of purpose - his desire only to escape and to adopt a new French identity, without any other tangible goal - that gives the film a plotless feel. I left the theater feeling as though I’d experienced something vulnerable and raw, but struggling to make sense of exactly where the film had taken me, and what I was left with. Maybe that’s the point. Life is messy. It’s full of emotion and mistakes and escapes and desires that lead to a crisis point, forcing you into a new beginning. Forcing you to find yourself. That process is never easy, and it rarely makes sense. Despite Yoav’s best efforts to reinvent himself, his past catches up to him. He reclaims his stories, faces his father, and explodes into madness as his reality and his fantasies collide. As D’Angelo Barksdale wisely posited in “The Wire”: “The past is always with us, and where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it, all this shit matters … It’s like you can change up, right, you can say you somebody new, you can give yourself a whole new story. But, what came first is who you really are and what happened before is what really happened.” Synonymes is a film about identity, about the impossibility of severing your present from your past. About grappling with your history and not letting it control your future. About hope. It’s worth a watch.