INTERVIEW WITH NADAV LAPID
Nadav Lapid’s third feature film is making waves across the festival circuit – Synonymes, the winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale, is nothing short of a Godardian pipe bomb, profoundly discussing issues related to the identity in a deeply polarized Europe in a highly engaging manner. The main character, Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli man attempting to erase his prior identity of a soldier by immersing himself into French culture, embodies all the idiosyncrasies and paradigms of the contemporary European culture – in a performance that is likely to remain one of the most iconic of the decade. We caught up with Nadav Lapid at this year’s edition of TIFF in Cluj-Napoca, as he is touring festivals with Synonymes and talked to him about the influences in his formal approach, contemporary socio-political tendencies and how they’re distilled in the film’s main characters.
FD: How did you conceive this film? And did you have different internal dispositions when you wrote the introspective, poetic moments of the film, in contrast to the expressive, action-based ones?
NL: I have been asked the same questions 3000 times until now, but not this. I know all the directors say this, but I’m very instinctive with my work, really. I always feel that there is a certain truth that you must reveal. That is, something that is basic in life, in existence in general. And my aim is to go deeper, and deeper and deeper. I don’t know how deep one is able to or should go, where it can get you. But it comes from a kind of necessity to go to the most “naked” places. Not in a sexual sense. It means to go to the place where the life began. And I believe that in this place, like in real life, things are totally mixed. Like, for instance, interior things, from inside of our soul, are a huge drama. A huge action scene. I can imagine a western happening only inside your soul. In a way, I think that the truth of things is chaos, in the meaning that everything is there, but it’s mixed. The interior and the exterior, the physical and the mental, the sexual and the ideological. I don’t know you, but I’m almost convinced that you had some of the most active moments of your life lying on a sofa and thinking. I think the aim of cinema, which doesn’t have this advantage that books have – that you can create this tempest of thoughts – its aim is to touch, to transform these mental adventures, these hurricanes of the soul. So, for me the interior and the exterior, what is happening in the body and in the mind are the same, in the end. But, of course, I must find cinematic tools to express this.
FD: I think that’s visible in the film. An aesthetic complementary of languages and vocabularies – not just in the proper sense of a term, or of language as a denominator of national identity, but also between visual and textual. The language expresses what the visual cannot, and vice versa.
NL: For instance, if I told you the film is many many scenes of a guy walking around and mumbling synonyms in French sounds… bad! I think that these scenes have been treated as action scenes – something they are the most dramatic, most adventurous scenes of the film. These words in French, in the film, they go way beyond the meaning, beyond their usage in communication. These words are a way of redemption – the victory of the self, its celebration, but also a loss. They are crucial – but the melody, the music of the words is more important than their meaning. It’s a linguistic action movie, if that may be.
FD: I found it interesting that Synonymes engages the cinematic heritage of France. The Nouvelle Vague, Godard, of course, but also films of other filmmakers, like Bertolucci. Your film doesn’t just cite these works – it engages them in a dialogue. How do you work with this complex network of references?
NL: A reviewer said about the film that for him, on the one hand, there are a lot of gestures towards the works of Godard, Carax, Bertolucci, but that at the same time, it’s like in a medieval battle between knights, that are in a duel. So, it’s also about challenging these directors. Like, “Okay, French people from French cinema, who’s your best director? Bring him here and let’s fight! Show me Carax.” I think the film treats this with a lot of honor, but it’s also slapping them. It’s also a challenge, a defiance. It takes the Nouvelle Vague and puts it upside down. It’s even, I think, playing with this French concept in life and cinema, the triangle d’amour, the love triangle. Is it the love triangle of Jules et Jim? I think, no. It’s more bitter, physical, hardcore, strange, obscene. I think it’s like how Yoav comes to Paris with a fantasy of the city – so that’s why when he meets a French couple that is just like in the French films, it’s like a fantasy for him, waking up naked in their bed. The movie is playing with this fantasy of French cinema, too – the Vague, or like Bertolucci making a film about an American coming to Paris. But this fantasy is also perverted in the film.
FD: Identity is one of the main topics of the film. You explore the biographical, sexual, ideological identity of Yoav. But it’s a negotiation: identity is rigid when it is a general concept, but it’s fluid on an individual level. How does Yoav situate himself in this complex, post-colonial, post-modern, post-truth France? He is like a bomb.
NL: He’s like a bomb, yes, like a bomb, like a warrior, because he is constantly fighting against the moment, like in a permanent war. He always wants to break borders, to do something that wasn’t done, to transform the moment into something else. Friendship to sex, and sex to friendship. He is always subverting what is happening – that’s why I think that beyond identity, he is like an eternal homeless person of life itself. He is always outside, trying to burst inside. He always, always finds himself bumping against closed doors. At the same time, he is a totally un-rigid character with very rigid notions. (Which is instinctive, unconscious.) In his head, it’s a simple dichotomy – I am going to kill my Israeli identity and be reborn as a French, but on his own conditions. He is the Frenchest of Israelis, the most Israeli of the French, he’s always outside. He comes from a place where the culture is dependent on borders, and then goes to a place where borders no longer exist. He wants to be a normal person but, at the same time, Napoleon Bonaparte. He is in a permanent contradiction. Is he gay or straight? A constant contradiction between consciousness and existence. And in the scene where he shoots the porno, it’s the only moment when he speaks Hebrew. The moment where he puts his finger in his ass. He is asked by the man filming him – how is it? – and he answers that it’s divine. Is it a terrible moment, or a divine moment? Is it humiliation or redemption? Is it a moment of truth, or a lie? Or all of them at the same time? It’s a very hybrid state of being, and in a way, each moment in the movie exists between two opposite poles. In paradise and in hell.
FD: I was also thinking, maybe, of Gustave Courbet’s realist manifesto. To talk of one’s own times, with the tools of those times. I think Yoav is living through this, existentially.
FD: And he’s also a flaneur. You mention Napoleon – but in the same scene, he steals a photo of Kurt Cobain. He even has this feeling of, let’s say, being iconic. In contrast to Emile, that comes from this academic, bourgeois background…
NL: It’s as if he has a consciousness for iconic moments. For example, the coat, in this orange-mustard coat he looks iconic. When he comes back to life in the bed of these people and he asks them, “Is this death?”. When he dances on the table, in this club. He has a kind of consciousness of iconic moments.
FD: I’d like to ask especially about the “Pump Up The Jam” scene. A really, really strong scene, and I found it a very particular choice of song. Why did you decide on this specific tune for this moment? It’s a nineties song, and now in pop culture we’re passing through this nostalgia for that decade…
NL: It was a lot of fun to imagine it. Not once in my life I found myself dancing to this stupid, marvelous song. Then I imagined something meaningful and charged with it. But it was also really instinctive – of course you can look at the film as something very sophisticated, but I think it’s also a very simple one, based on expulsions. So, the music taste is like… there’s something for me in these “inferior” pop tunes that make you say, “Oh, this is so stupid, so bad, so cheesy”, but suddenly you feel a certain something about these kitschy songs from the nineties. Like, “Come on, come on…” and then suddenly, despite yourself, you feel something. In a way, that’s also what I’m looking for in the relationships with the audience. I want them to be taken by the film, despite themselves. It’s strange because I think the same thing exists in very uncompleted, but strong pop songs like these. And I think they’re strong because there is a truth inside them. Like, I don’t know what this “Pump Up The Jam” thing talks about, I never did! [laughs].
FD: What the jam is.
NL: Exactly, what is the jam? How do you pump it? But what I feel is that, when you hear it, it’s not easy to deny the intensity. Maybe if we would have done this interview in ten hours, maybe, I would have started to dance.
FD: I would go back to the characters, specifically Emile and Caroline. They’re constructed on this archetype, but in spite of this, they do change and develop throughout the film, in very subtle ways. Both of them are somewhat (morally) perverse, in a way, and there is also a lot of sexual tension involved. And Yoav, economically and ideologically, is their alter. How did you construct their relationship?
NL: Absolutely. All of this is true – but for me the key is in the fact that they begin as symbols, as iconic characters, from his perspective. But, slowly, they develop their own existence in the movie, and they’re independent, real characters, and much more clever than Yoav, in a way, much less innocent. Which is what turns them to be darker, in a way. Whatever Yoav will understand when he will be, let’s say, forty years old, they already do. When he’s talking about life, they’re talking about a game. When he’s sincere, they are playful – and that’s harsh. In the beginning you have the feeling that they are like an admiring audience for him, but like any real audience, they can stand up and leave in the middle of the film. For instance, who is stronger? For a long time, it seems to be Yoav – because he is charismatic, beautiful, viral, sexy, funny and so on – but it is them, in fact. He is living in a no man’s land, and they’re living in nice real estates.
FD: And they have their feet on the ground. They already landed.
FD: My final question would be about the politics of the film, because it’s a very important aspect of the film. It arrives in a specific milieu and has a very refined way of approaching these broad topics discussed in Europe and all over the world, across the past five to six years. Identity, nationalism, national identity, borders, the threat of war and militarization, of the strain between nationalism and globalization, Nazism and bohemianism. You address all of these, especially towards the end, as Yoav is going through the immigration process. The teacher tries to explain what a secular point of view is, but through a series of preconceptions that are fundamentally racist. How would you situate Yoav, who has this specific innate political sense, in the middle of this complex contexts?
NL: It’s connected to the hybrid state we talked about before. He’s dancing between ideologies. He can be fascinated by these two extreme right-wing, ultra-fascist Jewish guys, but at the same time subvert the Israeli order in the embassy. He wants to be the Frenchest person ever and wants to despise the Israeli hymn by not singing it, just pronouncing the words quickly, but he doesn’t want to be in the middle either. He admires Paris, but he doesn’t want to look at it – like in the scene at the Notre Dame. He’s a very hybrid person, in a country like France, that is also dichotomous, closed, in this sense also limited and superstitious. Behind conceptions and values of open-mindedness, there’s the belief that these values are the only true ones nonetheless. As if Israel is characterized in the film as a place where there is a dichotomy between “us” and “the enemy” and you can only choose one side to be on. And then by young, muscular men, who are totally loyal to their country and don’t raise the slightest question or doubt about the state policy. And France is a bit of the same – you see a man praying so you take care of him. Everything that doesn’t conform to their norms is intolerable.
There’s always hidden violence and that is more frightening. Regarding all these contemporary questions – like, what does it mean to accept a foreigner if you don’t accept him as he is? To which extent is it actually assimilation? And what does that mean? Is it accepting someone by erasing him? I hope the film touches all of this, not through discussion, but through a song and a dance.
This interview was originally conducted for AperiTIFF, the daily magazine of Transylvania International Film Festival where it was partially published.