November 18, 2019

Israeli Director Nadav Lapid’s Complex Autobiographical Film ‘Synonyms’

Tom Mercier and Louise Chevillotte in “Synonyms.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

Israeli director Nadav Lapid is not surprised that his country’s ministry of culture, a notably conservative agency, helped underwrite his controversial, autobiographical film, “Synonyms,” although he admits if he were launching the movie today (instead of 2 1/2 years ago) it might be an altogether more difficult proposition. 

“As the country has grown increasingly less stable, the recent elections are part of that, there’s been a shift and the Ministry of Culture has become more intolerant,” he told the Journal, at moments his voice intense, even agitated. “At the same time I don’t think ‘Synonyms’ is a political movie like say, ‘Foxtrot,’ (2017), which criticized the Israeli army and could be viewed as leftist. My movie is far more ambiguous and therefore more radical than most political films and I suspect it’s too difficult for the Ministry of Culture to digest.”

That may be arguably true for many moviegoers as well, who, depending on viewpoint, could find the film compelling and/or difficult and/or uncomfortably anti-Israeli.

“Synonyms” recounts the experiences of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a 20-something Israeli who can no longer endure life in his homeland and flees to France, where he is haunted by demons from within and without. He befriends a self-indulgent vapid French couple, poses as a model for a perverse, trendy Parisian painter and finally becomes a security guard for the Israeli Consulate. On his existential quest, he spirals out of control. The film raises questions about Israeli identity, nationalism and the nature of exile.

Chatting in his film distributor’s midtown office, Lapid describes Yoav as a complex Israeli soul awash in contradictions: It’s in his DNA to have empathy for precisely the things he condemns and vice versa. It’s never entirely clear, nor should it be, what he thinks he’s running away from or running toward. “What was once paradise can turn into hell,” he said.

In all his films, including “The Policeman” (2011) and “The Kindergarten Teacher” (2014) but, especially, “Synonyms,” Lapid attempts to define the Israeli character (including his own, he admits), which he suggests is obsessive and informed by apocalyptic visions, real and imagined.

“It’s the way the Israeli talks, moves, dances, kisses, goes to war,” he said. “In everything they’re attacking the moment. It’s a constant battle with the moment. They are confident about their positions, immediately recognizing allies on the one hand and enemies on the other. With allies, their interactions are sufficient and short. With enemies, they are sufficient and cruel. No sense of humor, no nuance, no irony, no doubt, no eclectic way of thinking and talking. In that way Israel is a totally un-Jewish country. At the same time, its collective soul creates the opposite: the need for contradiction and alienation, and that’s very Jewish.”

“I was super enthusiastic to finally become a soldier. I prepared myself for battles and even death if necessary. Of course I didn’t understand anything. The service itself was pretty joyful, less dangerous than what I’ve fantasized about.”— Nadav Lapid

Yoav’s intense muscularity/virility stands in stark contrast to his self-destructive impulses. Early on, we see him fully nude. He is discovered, freezing in the bathtub by his neighbors. They notice that he is circumcised. 

“The ambiguity of the Israeli experience is expressed in the body,” Lapid explained. “It’s the image of the aggressive soldier and the circumcised Jew. It’s a cursed body. It contains exactly what Yoav wants to run away from but never can. Yet his body is also magnificent and admired. Yoav feels superior, also inferior. His feelings are never integrated. He is almost a mythological figure. And, yes, I wanted the actor to have a mythological body.”

Little-known Israeli actor Mercier was a revelation, Lapid said, stunned not by simply his physicality but his instinctual, raw acting talent. Israeli actors for the most part, he said, perform on a visceral level. 

Writing and directing an autobiographical film also brings its own special challenges, not the least is avoiding self-pity, Lapid conceded. Still, it’s a liberating genre precisely because the story followed his experiences and thus he didn’t need to worry about credibility or narrative cohesiveness. “The truth gives me the freedom to preserve the chaotic, not easily digestible material,” he said. 

Born in Tel Aviv to a secular family, Lapid grew up aspiring to be Napoleon, a Greek warrior, a musketeer and a military hero. “I was super enthusiastic to finally become a soldier,” he said. “I prepared myself for battles and even death if necessary. Of course I didn’t understand anything. The service itself was pretty joyful, less dangerous than what I’ve fantasized about. And, yes, there were some dramatic moments. I even got a special mention. It had a major role in the events in my life, but military service in itself isn’t the issue but the whole mental and existential preparation that begins in childhood, at least in my case, to fulfill myself as a soldier.”

As an exile in France — a country chosen mostly because of his youthful fantasies about Napoleon and later his admiration for the French soccer player Zinedine Zidane (Zizou) and Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 crime drama “Breathless,” he had no particular plans short of “adventure and glory,” Lapid said with a touch of irony. He studied French assiduously (refusing to speak Hebrew), eking out a living as a bodyguard for wealthy Jews, serving in the Israeli Embassy as a security guard and posing as a model for painters/photographers, not unlike Yoav.

His return to Israel came not with a bang, but a whimper when potential publishers for a novel he had written requested a meeting with him. But it didn’t take long for him to understand “I couldn’t go back to France. It was not an expression of ‘there’s no place like home,’ but rather the realization that Israel and France are not antonyms, which is what I originally thought. They were in fact synonyms.” 

Lapid’s next film centers on an Israeli director attending his film’s screening in a deserted village, where he struggles with the recent death of his mother and the death of artistic freedom. “I wrote that film in two weeks,” he said. “And yes, it is autobiographical and yes, I do think artistic freedom is threatened in Israel today.”

Asked if he’d like to make a film in the United States, Lapid said he never had the Hollywood dream. At the moment, his thoughts are most focused on “Synonyms” and his hope that audiences take away two thoughts: appreciating “how strange, paradoxical and moving existence is, but also realizing that before you deal with what you love and what you hate, you have to know who you are.”

“Synonyms” opens Nov. 1 at the Landmark Nuart Theatre.


Simi Horwitz is an award-winning reporter whose work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Film Journal International, American Theatre and the Forward, among others.