A couple of days before the award ceremony of the Berlin International Film Festival, I had the chance to meet Nadav Lapid, the director of “Synonyms”, unaware that his film would win the Golden Bear.
Here are the topics that we touched upon while discussing his new piece of work.
The words are essential in your movie. How important do you think they are in modern cinema?
There is a dichotomy between movies of words and movies of acts. I disagree with those who say that words are not cinematic material because I think that words are another material in a world made of bodies, movements, music, melody… Sometimes they are words of truth, sometimes false, sublime, vulgar, they play another voice in this choir that is cinema. In this film words have signification but they have also music, just like now that we are talking.
Compared to your previous movies, in this one, the camera movement, the framing and the aesthetics are very different. How come?
When shooting “Synonyms” we were looking for the truth of the movements in each scene. I felt that detachment between the emotional situation of the character and the emotional situation of the camera was impossible. I couldn’t understand why, if the person was agitated, the camera should stay cold-hearted: it seemed to me arrogant for the camera not to follow the character’s emotions. It is a directing decision because sometimes the camera has to be as agitated as the person, sometimes even more, it depends. For instance, the scenes of Yoav’s endless walking on the streets were shot with another camera, because even the person holding the camera had to feel the emotion of the character and thus pass it on to the images he was filming.
The body is a very present and very powerful element, displayed considerably. Why?
Yoav is a walking dichotomy, between Israel and France, between his origins and his aspirations… One might say that the body is Israel in the words of the French language. He replaces Hebrew words with new words, because if he’s running away from some demons he saw in Israel, then it is logical to stop speaking the words of those demons because those words contain what he is running away from. He mistreats his body for the same reason of getting rid of what connects him to Israel: first, he almost freezes to death, then starves, then prostitutes his body, but the body always resists and brings Hebrew words back to his mouth. Also, the strength and perfection of his body are a means to avoid empathy from the audience: when a man looks like a Greek statue it is more difficult to fall into the trap of pitying him.
But his fight is against himself: no matter how far he runs, he won’t get rid of his problems.
Yes, the demons are in himself, a little bit like in horror films, like “Rosemary’s Baby”! In some way, he is attracted to these demons – for example, he has this Israeli friend in Paris who politically speaking is his opposite.
Stylistically, the first part of the movie is more theatrical, while the second contains more action. Why did you choose this structure?
I think this is because in the first part there is a constant situation, his mood is more or less constant. But then there is a moment when things start to mix when he realizes that he ran away from the Israeli demon just to encounter the French demon, and from here things start to go faster.
Why did you choose to make him speak Hebrew in those two specific scenes, one with the photographer and one singing the Israeli national anthem?
The first scene at the photographer’s studio plays between the humiliating and the sublime, with him lying naked on the floor… I felt instinctively that that’s the moment where he can no longer be alienated from his mother tongue. The national anthem scene is the moment of his deception of France: he turns the anthem into something non-ceremonial but insists on finishing it, as if to say: “Only I can insult my family and you don’t interrupt me when I do it!”.
When exactly does he feel betrayed by France, finding out that it is not the paradise he imagined?
It’s a process, it happens in many scenes. Perhaps it starts when he’s with Emile in the boulangerie and it seems that Emile is fed up with him, then it continues in the French citizenship class. He senses its defaults, that attitude that France has of accepting you while making clear that you’ll never be like them, that you’ll stay in this kind of Dante’s Purgatory. For someone who treats French words as redemption and French people as angels, the disillusion is inevitable. The French national anthem is very violent and cruel, and I thought it was quite paradoxical to show a bunch of immigrants who sing it, who sing about their impure blood impregnating the paths!
Was it easy or difficult for you to detach yourself from the protagonist?
I needed a perfectly suitable main actor in order to detach myself because when you make a film with a character that is based on yourself, you need someone who is more perfect than you for this role. Someone told me about Tom Mercier and I called him for an audition, and he was really impressive. He has this rare mixture of obsession for details and freedom of interpretation: he knows the script by heart but manages to find liberty inside all these details. For him the script is a Bible, he reads it again and again until he absorbs it to the point that you don’t see the script anymore in his acting because he acts so freely.
If you had to label “Synonyms”, how would you label it? Is it a satyric comedy-drama, with its constant humorous element?
I have read several different descriptions: desperate comedy, tragic hero… I don’t know how to label it. I wanted to follow the truth of the moment, and sometimes this can result in a chaotic structure. Anyway, it is an A to Z structure, but also the scenes may be synonyms of each other, giving the film a somewhat circular construction, because it begins with him knocking on locked doors and finishes with him banging on a closed door.
In this movie, do you see France as a synonym of Israel?
In a way, maybe. They are very distant synonyms, like Yoav and Emile, very far but still deeply connected.
The army seems to be an important aspect of Israeli cinema, explored for instance by Samuel Maoz in his “Foxtrot” and “Lebanon”. What is your interpretation of the army element?
The problem of the army is that it contains the truth of the state. Imagine, at a young age you understand that being a soldier means to run fast, to be courageous, not to be too sensitive, to shoot well, not to be afraid to die, not to have too many doubts. When these are the chosen values, they structure the whole state. This is why the army begins when you’re a baby and never ends. There are many Israeli movies that show a precise critique of the army, but I am trying to talk about something else, only looking at the army as a revealing aspect of Israel’s soul. In this sense, Yoav is running away from Israel’s soul. He was good in the army, which makes it worse. When his father hypothesizes that he’s been traumatized by the army, he objects that he even enjoyed it: he could admit that he has been traumatized but no, he goes further, and I think that when you talk about your post trauma you are already cured. I remember when I finished my military service and got back home from the border: had a drink with a friend and the next day started to work. There was nothing to tell, everybody had done it, it was normal. And it is precisely when you normalize the abnormal that the monster starts to grow.
But does the trauma stay?
Yeah… But I don’t like this notion of trauma because it is overused. The comical effect in the film often comes from something you think is funny but then you discover it is serious. It is the gap between funny and frightening. The same way, you think your story is special but then discover it is just normal.
Why did you make references to Homer’s Iliad?
As a child I really admired Hector, I even dressed up like him at Carnival, and my parents hid the book so that I would not find out about his defeat. Israel is obsessed with victory and heroism, we think that we must win every war. But look at the French, they lost several wars and yet they’re still here! Therefore, supporting the loser in mythology is already a subversive act. Also, Hector didn’t simply lose against Achilles, he was defeated by death itself because no hero can be as powerful as death. And this is something that Yoav understands, but our country does not understand: it is still a prisoner of the myth of heroism and unaware that death is more powerful than any hero.