The Austin Film Society is hosting a series of virtual screenings called the ‘Children of Abraham/Ibrahim: Films of the Middle East and Beyond.’
The films in the series, which is being held in conjunction with the University of Texas Center for Middle Eastern Studies, will be available through March.
The series opened Feb. 28 with the debut of “Mayor,” a documentary focusing on Musa Hadid, the mayor of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. It’s directed by David Osit.
The rest of the lineup includes “Synonyms,” which started streaming Feb. 25; “There Is No Evil,” screening March 4; and “Tazzeka,” screening March 11.
“Synonyms” is probably the standout of the package, although the others deserve attention, too.
“Synonyms” won the top prize, the Golden Bear, at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, and it introduces us to Tom Mercier, who seems destined to become a major international actor in the years to come.
He plays Yoav, a young Israeli, who has come to Paris to shed his national identity and become a Frenchman.
The movie opens with a jerky, handheld camera, following Yoav as he walks through the rainy streets of Paris with his backpack. He ends up at a multi-level, upscale apartment building and retrieves a key from under the hallway carpet. The apartment inside is bare but beautiful, with spacious rooms and an eerie feeling of upscale abandonment.
That’s obviously the idea that Israeli director Nadav Lapid is going for in his third feature, after 2011’s “Policeman” and 2014’s “The Kindergarten Teacher.”
Yoav bundles up in a sleeping blanket to escape the cold, but when he awakens, he decides to take a bath. It’s as if he’s shedding his skin, and his identity, as we see him bathe. And yes, there is full-frontal nudity. Once he’s finished with his bath, he goes back to where he left his sleeping blanket. But all of his possessions have disappeared. So, in the freezing cold, he runs naked throughout the apartment building, banging on doors and asking for help. But no one answers any of his pleas. The doors remain closed. He then returns to his bath, hoping to stay warm by running the hot water. But the hot water goes out, and Yoav languishes in the tub — an obvious visual reference to “The Death of Marat” by the artist Jacques-Louis David.
After a while, a young couple ventures from their apartment to investigate the noise they heard earlier. One of them, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire), turns out to be an aspiring writer who’s being supported by his wealthy industrialist father. The other, Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), is apparently his girlfriend as well as an oboe player in a Parisian orchestra.
They wander the building and end up finding Yoav passed out in the tub. Emile notes that the young man is circumcised. And the two of them carry Yoav to their luxurious apartment and put him in their bed. Emile climbs into the bed to warm up Yoav, who soon awakens to find he has been rescued by a very generous couple.
At this point, the viewer will suspect that at least one of two rescuers will end up have a sexual relationship with Yoav.
Let’s just say that there’s plenty of tension. We quickly learn from conversations that Yoav has come to Paris to start a new life as a Frenchman, forsaking his Israeli identity after a stint in that nation’s defense forces. It’s also rather clear that Yoav is from a prominent family, just like Emile.
Yoav comes up with all sorts of putdowns about Israel and how he hopes to improve his French language skills in order to become a French citizen.
Luckily, he’s in an apartment with Emile and Caroline where words matter quite a lot. Emile is sort of a French cliche, working on a book whose title is “Nights of Inertia.” He’s frustrated and alienated by his father, who thinks he’ll never write anything that will equal Victor Hugo’s novels.
Yoav asks Emile about his relationship with Caroline, and Emile responds that he would be willing to have the same sort of relationship with Yoav.
Eventually, Yoav turns down an offer to take up residence in Emile’s guest room and strikes out on his own, with a generous amount of Emile’s money. And before long, he’s working as a security guard at the Israeli embassy in Paris, where he is treated with high regard.
Yoav spends his days thumbing through a French dictionary, coming up with new terms to describe his disgust for his past life — hence, the title “Synonyms.”
He spends his free time with Emile and Caroline, and Yoav begins to tell his story, with all sorts of references to Greek myths and the battle between Achilles and Hector. Yoav says he identifies with the doomed Hector, of course, since this fits with his gloomy outlook.
Throughout the film, Mercier is mesmerizing as Yoav. He has a hard body and oozes machismo. Even his supervisors at the embassy seem sexually attracted to him.
But it also seems clear that Yoav will not be able to change his identity. As the critic Justin Chang writes in his review for the Los Angeles Times: “Yoav’s nude body becomes a kind of metaphorical conflict zone, his circumcised penis an eternal reminder that identity cannot always be cast off like a carapace, no matter how hard you might try.”
In essence, “Synonyms” deals with the travails of a lost young man. And it’s not clear whether he’ll ever be able to craft a new identity. This might sound like an age-old tale, but Mercier and director Lapid make this search compelling.
To check out the Austin Film Society’s screenings, visit austinfilm.org.