Berlinale 2019: The Provocative, Thrilling ‘Synonyms’, Film Companion

Yoav (Tom Mercier) moves from Israel to France, finds a place to stay, and when he steps out after a bath, he finds his clothes have been stolen. After a futile search (and how much searching can you do, after all, when you’re stark naked?), he returns to the flat, lies in the bathtub and passes out. The next morning, he’s found by a wealthy Parisian couple — Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) — who live in the same building. They revive him (bring him back to life, in a manner of speaking), feed him, clothe him. Yoav is “reborn” in Paris, which is very much part of his agenda (and the film’s rampant symbolism). He has renounced Israel. He won’t speak Hebrew anymore. But here’s the thing. When Emile was carrying Yoav to his flat, he noticed that Yoav was circumcised. Even with nothing on, the Jewish identity clings to Yoav. Will merely speaking in French make him, well, French?

Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms is nothing if not provocative — and autobiographical. The director, too, moved to Paris and refused to speak Hebrew, and his film language is similarly (and I think intentionally) “borrowed”. It’s French. It’s the New Wave. The softly sensual Emile (he’s a writer) looks like a character that might have been played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. The oddly bohemian relationship between Yoav and his new friends tips a beret to Jules and Jim, and even the guerilla shooting style is reminiscent of the films of the era. Perhaps even Yoav’s adoration of the Trojan warrior Hector is a nod to Godard’s use of Greek myths in films like Helas Pour Moi and Le Mépris. Synonyms is overlong and repetitive and sometimes wilfully obscure (it’s near-impossible to get in one go) – but every frame is charged with the break-all-rules aesthetic of the Nouvelle Vague, and it’s thrilling. It’s an adrenaline shot to the heart.

The title comes from Yoav’s attempts to become proficient in the new language. He buys a French dictionary and keeps repeating words aloud, like what we call “mugging up” in India. He tells Emile that Israel is “repugnant.. fetid… obscene… ignorant… vulgar…” Emile replies, “No country is all of that at once. Choose one.” But Yoav can’t. This is a film of excess. Why stop with one word when there are so many synonyms? Why stop with Yoav’s absurd quest when you can also add absurd flashbacks about his life as a soldier in Israel? Why stop with that circumcision bit to make the point that Yoav’s identity will never leave him? Why not also make him pose nude for a photographer who wants him to stick a finger up his butt and scream obscenities in Hebrew? Why not send up the national anthems of both France and Israel? If Yoav (and the audience) still hasn’t gotten the point till now, this scene should do it. It’s all the same. Or as the director might say, France is just a synonym for Israel.


After days of naturalistic cinematography, it was a nice change to walk into the neon colours of Xaver Böhm’s O Beautiful Night, which opens on the face of a young man named Juri (Noah Saavedra). He appears to be in the throes of an intense feeling. An orgasm, perhaps? When the camera moves down, though, we see a crow perched on Juri’s chest, pecking at bits of his still-throbbing heart, which has pushed through his skin. The dream-image is fitting, for Juri is a hypochondriac. He quickly looks up “Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest”. Be careful what you don’t wish for. Soon, Death (Marko Mandić) accosts him when he is at a video games arcade, saying, “Let’s find a nice place to die.” A game of Russian roulette will follow.

This incredibly dynamic film could be seen as a punk-spirited German filmmaker’s answer to The Seventh Seal. If you remember, the protagonist of that Ingmar Bergman classic played games with Death, too: chess, to be precise. But instead of Bergman’s stateliness (and someone from Juri’s generation might call it chin-stroking ponderousness), we get a sensory explosion. There’s a curious sensibility, too — for instance, except Nina (Vanessa Loibl), who works at a peep show, every other woman is old and presented as grotesque. All of which is to say that unpacking the director’s mind is half the fun. He’s all over the movie. Literally. Watch the closing credits, and you’ll find that he has composed songs, played the synth… There’s no other way something this weirdly one-of-a-kind could have been made.


Early on in André Téchiné’s Farewell to the Night, a horse breeder named Muriel (Catherine Deneuve) raises her eyes to a solar eclipse. Her foreman advises her to look away. “It will burn your eyes.” If you want to treat this scene as a metaphor, you’ll find that the film is about another white-hot development that Muriel finds she can’t look away from. She discovers that her sullen grandson, Alex (Kacey Mottet Klein), is planning to move to Syria and join the ISIS. Channelling her inner Nargis, Muriel becomes Mother France — she will not let evil hold sway, even if this means physically restraining Alex. The plot is solid melodrama, but the characters are barely fleshed out and the resultant crisis doesn’t feel like the end of the world. Only Deneuve makes sure you don’t look away.


Like every festival, the Berlinale makes room for older, experimental films that have acquired cult status. This year, I caught Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983), where a young woman gets a job selling tickets at a New York City porno theatre. She then begins to stalk a middle-aged male patron. It plays like 1970s De Palma with the gender polarities reversed, and indeed, Gordon presents voyeurism from a female point of view. She said: “What if I turned the genre of the noir thriller on its head, and decided to make a woman the investigator and the male the enigmatic figure?” In other words, the film subverts the male gaze of films like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And unlike those male filmmakers, Gordon isn’t after conventional narrative pleasures. She isn’t interested in explaining why her heroine does what she does. Variety is more about how the things that turn on men (whether porn or certain themes traditionally considered the domain of “male” filmmakers) can be an equal turn-on for women.


And then there was Derek Jarman’s The Garden (1990), which — forget plot — doesn’t even have much dialogue. “I want to share this emptiness with you,” Jarman says at the beginning. The New Queer Cinema legend made this memoir-like mood piece after being diagnosed as HIV-positive. (He died in 1994.) One of the key figures is a man on a hospital bed, screaming. Another autobiographical element appears at the end, when Jarman reads out an elegy to people who died too soon. “Old age came early to my frosted friends.” The bulk of the film equates a gay couple with Christ. They get married, but soon after, end up tarred and feathered. A Broadway-like number (Think pink) suggests things have become better, but the couple ends up literally carrying a cross.

The Garden is no mere movie. It feels like rattling around inside the head of a dying man who knew his death was near.


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