“Synonyms,” the latest film from writer-director Nadav Lapid, is perched at first disarmingly, then disconcertingly, on the razor-edge between fantasy and nightmare. Like his first two features, “Policeman” (2011) and “The Kindergarten Teacher” (2014), the new film is an almost clinical examination of people trapped by the social roles they have assumed, their sanity sacrificed for the sake of a strange sense of self-esteem.
But what sets the new film apart, besides Lapid’s rapidly growing mastery of his art and the Golden Bear it won him at the Berlin Film Festival, is the fact that the story is more or less a true one; the filmmaker’s own.
Sitting in a conference room choked with film posters, DVDs and videocassettes, the lanky, shaven-headed Israeli confesses that the new film’s protagonist, Yoav (played deftly by newcomer Tom Mercier), is “based on reality, but I had to moderate some things. But most of the things took place.”
When he had completed his military service, Lapid took himself to Paris. He had no plans or goals except never to return to Israel. He refused to speak Hebrew and made his way about the city with a French dictionary always at hand. He met and became friends with a Parisian who, among other things, introduced him to cinephilia, the kind of film-obsessed lifestyle the French are so good at.
Eventually Lapid returned to Israel (and, one assumes, to speaking Hebrew), but the direction of his life was permanently altered.
Yoav, his fictional counterpart, is robbed and accidentally locks himself out of the apartment where he is supposed to spend his first night in Paris. Unfortunately, he had been preparing for a bath, so he races through the building seeking the thief while stark naked.
“Sometimes in life a scene takes place and you fall asleep,” he says with a faint grin. “In the movie you have the choice to go back and stay awake.”
Yoav is rescued and befriended by a young couple, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire), a benign wealthy layabout, and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), an oboist in a contemporary music group. They feed him, clothe him and gently indulge his manias as he gradually becomes an integral part of their lives.
Surprisingly, Lapid chose as his collaborator for the screenplay his father, Haim Lapid, a successful Israeli writer. Given that the real-life events the film is based on actually took place, as the director explains, “in a period when I was pretty disconnected to my parents,” he expected the writing process to be something like a confession, “a way of telling your parents what you’d been through.”
But it turned out rather differently, he admits.
“We discussed everything thoroughly,” Lapid says. “But it was always an artistic discussion, about Yoav and not Nadav. We discussed things that were very emotional but never personal. There was [always] the shadow of reality, but we tried to avoid the shadow.”
He did learn from his father that at the time his parents “didn’t understand what was going on, they couldn’t imagine it.”
Mercier brings an edgy youthful energy to his depiction of the young Lapid, who discovered the actor when he was a student at the Yoram Levinstein Acting Studio in Tel Aviv. Lapid says of his star, “He’s a better version of myself.”
Mercier certainly replicates Lapid’s powerful sense of alienation. Reliant on his dictionary and fumbling for the right words — for the synonyms that give the film its title — Yoav wanders the streets of Paris in a bright yellow coat (“it’s sort of a mustard color,” Lapid says with a rueful smile). It marks him out from the inhabitants of the city “wherever he goes, a bit like a superhero who profits from his actions but is also tragic because he never can be a part of that society. He will always be an outsider.”
In short, Yoav is a close relative of both the hyper-masculine cop and the confused would-be terrorist of “Policeman,” and the title character of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” who imagines one of her students to be a child prodigy poet.
“They feel a certain deeper truth has been revealed to them and everyone else is blind,” Lapid explains. “They will follow that truth with all their hearts believing it will lead to salvation and redemption, but they have an intense feeling of isolation.”
In a sense, he says, all four of these characters are at once typical Israelis and yet utterly unlike their countrymen. What sets them apart from most ordinary Israelis is that “these people don’t have a sense of humor,” he adds. “If you have humor, you can detach yourself from a situation; you realize that life is full of bitter humor.”
Lapid says, “Yoav’s madness is that he is incapable of making compromises with life. He follows his one principle without looking either left or right, so his life is strange and chaotic. My movies are an encounter between those forces.”
In that respect, the filmmaker connects his cinematic vision to the state of Israel itself.
“Israel was founded on a basic truth, that the Jews should have their own place,” he says. “It’s a lucid truth. Israel is a state based on a thought, a reflection. And when you attempt to concretize a thought, that is a sublime thing to do, but it sometimes leads you to ridiculous moments.”
Lapid looks at the current Israeli political situation as an echo and a confirmation of that belief.
“I didn’t realize how much fear was dominating the cultural realm,” he admits. “It’s surprising how easy it is to make people afraid. But everyone – people in general, filmmakers as well – should be courageous. Don’t be afraid until you have a good reason.”
Intriguingly, Lapid believes the smallness of Israeli society will save it from totalitarianism. “It’s very hard to turn fascist when you know all your neighbors. I have close relationships with all these people [despite the variety of our beliefs]. I know them. So I never felt afraid.”