Nadav Lapid didn’t pick up a camera until he was 26. The Israeli auteur discovered his passion for filmmaking while abroad, living in Paris after completing his mandatory army service. Since falling in love with cinema, he eventually returned to Israel, and in the time since has crafted three essential works. Lapid’s debut, “Policeman” (2011), was a measured indictment of Israel’s incongruities, a radically structured undertaking built around contradictions. His follow-up, “The Kindergarten Teacher” (2014) became a quick-candidate for an American remake (the version not directed by Lapid stars Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Lapid’s latest, “Synonyms,” is an uncompromising evolution of his aesthetic. Adapted from Lapid’s own experience away, we follow Yoav (Tom Mercier, in a superb debut performance), a confused twenty-something who has just left the Israeli military and Israel itself. He moves to Paris, with nothing but what he can carry on his back (a rucksack that’s quickly stolen). He swears to never speak Hebrew again. In his attempt to assimilate into French society, Yoav meets Emile (Quentin Dolmaire), an upper-class faux-writer, and eventually offers to sell him the stories of his life. Later, deep into his desperation, Yoav offers to sell his body to a photographer, too.
Equally indebted to the works of Jean-Luc Godard and Paul Schrader, “Synonyms” bites off a lot—maybe more than another filmmaker could chew. Lapid turns his attention to everything from the nature of narrative and nation to toxic masculinity; all the while, we never leave Paris or Yoav’s point-of-view. After winning the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival last February, “Synonyms” opens stateside this week.
I’ve been describing it “Synonyms” as an Israeli film, but I realized yesterday that’s not necessarily the case. What do you think? Is this an Israeli film? Is this a French film?
I think it’s mostly an Israeli film, because myself, I’m Israeli. And clearly, sometimes you have to go to the moon in order to watch better the Earth, so I think sometimes you have to go to Paris in order to watch better Israel. Of course, above everything, it’s not an Israeli film, or not a French film—it’s my film. I don’t like this word, but the film is universal. I think that basically it’s a film about every person. But if you have to choose between, to make the choice as the guy there [Yoav] cannot do at the end ... I would say that it’s mostly Israeli.
The film features a lot of nudity, and a lot of nudity in really unhealthy environments. One thing I was wondering: how do you ensure that your practices on set create a more comfortable environment than, say, the environment at Yoav’s photo-shoot?
Tom Mercier, the main actor, is a very gentle, tender and nice person, but totally limitless. I mean, I've never seen someone like it, in the most authentic way, not because he decided to be a total actor, but because he doesn't recognize the existence of frontiers, of limitations. So, I remember when we were in Berlin, when the film premiered. He was asked about this sensitive nudity scene, and one time I had to see that he did not understand what the guy was talking about. He could have also done the interview naked.
So, I don't think that nudity is such a big thing. I think that nudity is a great element that cinema can use. There's a fascinating thing about nudity—that this is the moment when there is a total equality between the actor and the character. I mean, you see the character naked, but you see also the actor naked. Nudity is a relevant, interesting tool among others that you can use.
When did you realize that Tom [Mercier] was so comfortable, so limitless?
I think that I found it already in the audition. There's something in a second you feel that he's so peculiar. I mean, he's like these cars that race from zero kilometers to three hundred kilometers in a second. And at the same time, he can go back to [zero]. But it's not because he's capricious. It's because in his tranquility, there is already the storm, and in the storm there is already the tranquility. He's both.
The film deals in a lot of portrayals of masculinity. I was wondering, do you think there's anything that separates the toxic, aggressive masculinity of Israeli men from French men? From American men?
In Israel, this masculinity is an organized thing. It's integrated and legitimate inside of, it's the essence of an institution [the army], which is the essence of the society. So it's not a thing that you do apart, it's not like, I don't know, seven men drunk or not drunk in an American college. It's the flag. And it has ideological justification. I'm not saying it even in a negative way, so it becomes an ideological act, which is again, the DNA of the state. So it has nothing, there's nothing subversive about it. There's nothing naughty about it. It's very serious.
The character Emile functions as a contrast, or an alternative model for masculinity within the film. Do you think that it is possible to assimilate into that model, even when the conditioning is so strong?
An important part of the motivations that leads this [Israeli] masculinity, this desire to conquer, is based on the curiosity for surprises. I mean, this urge to find out new places, and to put your flag in it. And Emile, he knows the answer already, he knows that everything is the same. I think that maybe—is it a recipe for a different masculinity? I don't know, but it's clearly a recipe for depression. So, between wildness and cultivated melancholy, I don't know what's the better option.
Do you think that Yoav would consider himself Jewish?
I don't know, but what I can say is that I think that for a certain, at least to a certain degree, he's doing the reverse movement of Zionism. He re-becomes the Wandering Jew. I mean, a little bit like the Wandering Jew he gives up his national language in order to comprehend the local language, and he must charm the locals in order that they'll let him stay in their country, and his biggest arm is his stories. He becomes like a Jewish storyteller. So from this point of view, he's very Jewish.
You've been doing a lot of press for this film for a long time. Is there anything you want to say, or to mention about the film that people haven't been asking you?
I would love for people also to look at this film also as a film about being young. I think that all the film would have collapsed if these three—Emile, Caroline [Emile’s significant other], and Yoav—were thirty-something. I think it's also a hymn to youth. Following an idea and practicing the idea in the most extreme way like Yoav is doing, and being shaken like this, is to be vibrating all the time. When I made the film I tried to recall [how I felt], the vibration I felt back then, this vibration that you feel in the moment ...
I certainly feel it on a daily basis. It's interesting that you use the word "recall." Does that mean that you don't feel like that as much now? That you feel a little more stable?
Yes and no. I mean luckily, I think for me, despite the distance, despite the fact that I can analyze more —which doesn't mean that I'm going to have the right analysis—but that I can analyze more, and I have perspective, and I can maybe give certain reasons ... nothing is solved. This is the thing, this is what permitted me to make this movie. Otherwise, it would become a historical movie. I think that, like Yoav, the movie's only interested in the present. The movie is celebrating the present while fighting against it. Sanctifying the actual moment while defying it. And this is the thing both the movie and Yoav are doing all the time.
What do you want to make next?
I'm going to shoot my new movie in two months. In the desert of Israel.
In the Negev?
In the Arabah. It's even more isolated, even more desert than the desert.
Speaking of filmmaking, I read in another interview that while you were abroad, you really discovered your love of filmmaking. But that's not part of Yoav's story. Why did you choose to omit that from "Synonyms"?
Because I think that Yoav, in the moment when we abandon him [when the film ends], is the moment where he re-appropriates his stories. Saying, "maybe I am not so interesting, but they are mine." And this is also the moment that, in a way, his connection with both his initial project of dying and being reborn as French, and the connection with Emile, and the connection with Paris, is broken. The moment that you turn yourself to cinema you elaborate a lot of things to a certain activity. Yoav is still a full auteur. He's still living his art.