We meet Yoav (Tom Mercier) walking through Parisian streets to an apartment so bare that it’s not immediately evident if he belongs there. An Israeli expat, Yoav arrives in Paris to discover that whatever arrangements he made for living quarters were a sham, and he cannot even enjoy the minor comfort of a warm shower in the completely unfurnished flat without someone breaking in and stealing his clothes, sending the man scrambling out to find the culprit before returning to the freezing apartment and back to the shower to stay warm as long as the water remains hot. Passing out in a shivering state, Yoav is found and taken in by Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), a neighboring couple who belatedly respond to his cries for help. Their kindness is a life raft for Yoav, who quickly forms a bond with the pair. So begins Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, one of the strangest in the current crop of immigrant narratives.

Yoav opens up to the couple almost immediately, explaining that he emigrated from Israel as an act of protest against their increasingly right-wing policies. Indeed, the man is so committed to leaving behind his nationality that he insists on speaking only in French, a language he is still learning and speaks with the awkward cadence of an autodidact who has learned mostly by book, particularly a thesaurus from which he reads aloud synonyms for words he understands to springboard to others. This tends to result in him forging sentences out of a slew of adjectives, as when he explains his antipathy toward Israel to Emile by listing a string of vituperative adjectives to describe the nation’s evil, to which the Frenchman can only cooly respond, “No country is all that at once.” When he asks Caroline if he said a sentence correctly, she notes “grammatically, it’s correct,” acknowledging that his French isn’t wrong so much as it is excessively stuffy and alien to the cadences of actual conversation. His stiff, arrhythmic style of speech emphasizes his alienation from the country that he has decided to make his new home, a reminder that immigration is more than a matter of simply uprooting.

Further exacerbating the ironic indications of Yoav’s inability to assimilate is the fact that the only job he can get is working security for the Israeli embassy. Here the film dips into deadpan absurdism, confronting Yoav’s disdain for Israeli militarism with his own conditioned tendency toward aggression. When forced to speak Hebrew inside the embassy, he does so through clenched teeth. Yoav befriends Yaron (Uria Hayik), who is so proud of his nationality and ethnicity that he starts fights not only with neo-Nazis but even other Israelis, including using MMA holds on a colleague in the embassy as Yoav unexpectedly cheers on the violence. Yoav’s aggressive attempts to gain his French citizenship find him performing ridiculous tasks in immigrant classes, though the pressures of assimilation always contrast with his bravado, as when a scene of him loudly belting out “La Marseillaise” in a classroom mostly plays as an echo of an earlier scene of him suddenly groaning the Israeli national anthem on the subway.

In such moments, Synonyms brims with all the muted rage and anxiety of strident self-displacement, a gallows comedy about an act of willful diaspora. The film’s willingness to make Yoav such an insufferable narcissist complicates the often po-faced severity of immigrant narratives; in one scene he even refuses to speak Hebrew on a Skype call to a relative back home who cannot understand French. Yet the film does falter in places, most notably in its characterization of Caroline, initially a key foil for the eimgré who calls out his solipsism but eventually becomes little more than an erotic tease for the protagonist; Emile confides to Yoav that his wife used to be a “slut,” and Lapid seems all too willing to endorse this view. Synonyms visits various humiliations upon its protagonist, from demeaning model shoots to the inescapability of his IDF past, but the more meaningless and staid condescension it doles out to Caroline weakens the film’s final act. The film recovers only in its final moments, a brutal depiction of brutal vulnerability and fear that slices through the mordant comedy to end on a note of pure existential despair.

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