An expatriated man, name of Yoav (introducing the electric-charged Tom Mercier) expatriates from the Israeli army to France but finds his Parisian experience is synonymous with the treatment he hoped to escape. Our lead actor works as a lightning rod – a real energy conduit by which the story and direction move through – overladen with feeling. We cannot always find our home somewhere else. The problems that plagued us in one segment of society may be inherent and boldly pronounced in another. Some doors may open to us, suggesting profound new experiences are possible, but they may be the doors of others, while the doors that hold our desired outcomes are permanently shut off.
Synonyms loves words. Not quite the way a French movie usually loves words. It loves them in an uglier way. Not in clever bon mots, but in broken tangents of absurdity. Mercier is positively inspired, walking through the streets of Paris, inhibiting himself – “don’t look up” – and scrambling together incoherent lists of words that may mean the same thing. He flows in rap-like cadence, through a list of derogatory words, that might best describe his unfolding experience in the city. The dream of Paris is not his to fathom. He cannot even look over the banks of the beautiful river, not to waste time, or indulge in what he cannot grasp. He could not look up, because it will never be his to see.
His fate is inevitably a tragic one: he is used and abused for the same foreignness that he wishes to escape. He meets a couple who both want to use him for sex. He is an exotic afterthought, who showed up in the bathtub below them where all his stuff was stolen, and he was left, naked, afraid, easy to manipulate. Yoav encounters men who want to photograph him pornographically. They demand he speaks in Hebrew while performing on himself. It’s another refusal, as speaking in his native tongue, the one he abandoned for the French, admonishes him to always being a fetish. It is a heart-wrenching scenario that provides no obvious escape.
Mercier is so frenetic that the movie tries to meet his energy where it stands, but he is too far ahead of the product. The camera is uneven and makes too much of a documentary effort when things are nicely framed already and it requires stillness to contrast the movement. Instead, it moves just as rapidly and shows difficulty tracing around the broad strokes of the grand central performance. Yoav’s yellow city coat is emblematic of what happens in the direction, it is squarely interested in him, like a cartoon playing before a drab painting of a Paris street.
What keeps things moving is a fast script and really great acting. It’s a tremendous turn for Mercier. He delivers readings eloquently, talking poetically, about how he plays music on his guns. Demanding in his classes to join French society, to play the anthem loud so he can project his love for the country that cannot return the feeling at such volume. Yoav loves Paris as deeply as the synonyms he spouts, like shooting off yet another gun, verbally. Yet, for all his love of finding what is similar and common in the language, he cannot escape the fact that he remains an antonym himself.