Synonyms

Tom Mercier plays an ex-Israeli soldier who tries to start a new life in Paris in "Synonyms."

From “An American in Paris” to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the idea of going to Paris and reinventing oneself is a common pop culture dream. 

That daydream gets a jarring spin in Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms,” which screens Wednesday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., as part of the museum’s Spotlight Cinema series. Admission is free for museum members, $7 for all others.

Lapid’s hero is Yoav (Tom Mercier), a former Israeli soldier who has come to Paris in the hopes of leaving traumatic war memories behind him. On his first night in town, all of his possessions are stolen while he’s lounging in the tub, leaving him naked as a newborn — perhaps a wry, mocking metaphor for his desire to be reborn.

A trendy young couple who lives upstairs, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevilotte), take pity on Yoav and befriend him. Intent on becoming a Parisian, Yoav is determined not to speak Hebrew, instead carrying a French dictionary around as he tries to learn the language.

But although Yoav yearns to become the cool, turtlenecked Emile, reinvention is not easy. He feels out of place in the cafes and dance clubs of the city, and his attempts at conversation inevitably circle back to unpleasant memories of the war. But when Yoav meets fellow Israeli expatriates in the city, he feels alienated from them as well. He’s a man without a country.

Lapid, who based “Synonyms” on his own experiences in his 20s, illustrates Yoav’s alienation by dressing him in a brown-mustard overcoat that makes him stick out like a sore thumb among the cool blues and grays of Paris. While much of the film is shot in gorgeously composed images that capture the beauty of Paris, other shots of Yoav are shot with a handheld camera, the jittery image mimicking his anxious mind.

“Synonyms” keeps the viewer off-balance, vacillating between comedy and drama, sometimes in the same scene, and images so bizarre that we wonder if we’re watching a dream sequence. Mercier’s arresting performance has the precision of physical comedy at times, portraying Yoav as a hapless, Chaplin-esque figure negotiating this new city. But just when we’re ready to chuckle at his well-meaning cluelessness, the film reveals a glimpse of Yoav’s wounded soul. We’re not sure whether to sympathize with him or fear for those around him.

“Synonyms” touches on hot-button questions about immigration and assimilation, questions that are driving politics in France, and elsewhere. It’s not a political film, but more of an urgent philosophical drama about the dangers of trying to discard one self for another. It’s much easier for the body to emigrate than the soul.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.