Synonyms

At a 10 pm showing at the Music Hall with three other viewers, we spend a good deal of time with an antic, driven, eccentric protagonist pacing Parisian streets on a mission of self-estrangement, and attempts to denude himself of his Israeli identity while cloaking himself in manteaux of the Republique, Larousse and laïcité.

“Denuding” is the point – our man Yoav arrives naked and trembling in scene one, and his clothes are on lease throughout, creating a willful tension between what’s ‘skin deep’ and a national identity that appears prêt-à-porter and deceptively accessible. Much of what plays out explores how the body and words are worn, how language and identity are rehearsed and performed in public.

You see Yoav’s penis a lot – there is explicit and implicit attention to its circumcision, teasing out tropes of anti-semitism that are hardly below the surface in contemporary France at this point.

Men wrestle often – there is eros, aggression, frustration, temporary camaraderie, frequent humiliation. There is also a decidedly typical ménage-à-trois with a rich and listless couple with lovely mouths and vacant stares – they are clearly stand-ins, synonymous with Macronist millennialism, detached from any French revolutionary ardor.

Yoav, refusenik in mode and mission, is both susceptible and ambivalent to revolutionary affirmations, a product of Israeli security services, but also a physical ‘asset’ open to recruitment, reuse, repatriation. He’s densely loaded, likely to go off, a ready instrument but also an overdetermined conceit. At one point he tells a story that confuses a violin with a machine gun, and his onscreen audience questions its authenticity. It’s a signature antimony that is a prototype for many in the movie – exile and emigration, identity and integration, accent and fluency.

This film is challenging, by turns insufferable and sublime. Yoav is annoying like Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked – lyrical, provoking, muttering, self-abasing. He’s also weird and exalted, like Denis Lavant mid-dance at his peaks of mania and frolic. He’s beautiful and bland, sculpted, a specimen, himself a prototype. Who knows what France will make of him?

The final scene, which is extraordinary, has him literally crashing the gates, an ineffectual but exigent battering ram, alone at highest volume. At a time of forced exits and closed doors, he’s trying to come home, but that’s an increasingly unpronounceable word, its noise unbearable.

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