You won’t find an existential crisis more maddening and mesmerizing than the one Yoav (Tom Mercier) is having in “Synonyms,” a drama from director Nadav Lapid that bristles with outrageous artistic confidence. The young man, handsome and lost, has fled Israel after a discombobulating experience in the army and is now in Paris, doing everything in his power to become French. It’s hard to change who you are. It’s even harder to change where you’re from.
The movie, winner of the top prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is antic, poetic, funny, and alarming in equal measure — a real ride, although where the ride is taking both its hero and the audience is always in question. Yoav first stays in an empty Paris apartment where his clothes and backpack are stolen while he’s taking a bath; he’s thus reborn into his new life naked and freezing.
The neighbors downstairs take him in: Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevilotte), a couple, sort of. He’s a rich kid who wants to write, she’s a willowy oboist who takes one look at the nude soldier boy sleeping on her bed and lowers her eyes like a cat. The movie drops one shoe and waits patiently for the other.
What does Yoav want? To obliterate his nationality and the exhausting machismo that comes with it. He’ll only speak French, even to family members worriedly FaceTiming him, and he carries a French-Hebrew dictionary everywhere he goes, rattling off words and synonyms as if he might disappear into the language. Mercier is handsome and muscular and the movie loves looking at him, but there’s a desperation beneath Yoav’s studied disaffection that keeps leaking out. He’s like the young Marlon Brando crossed with a startled deer.
The actor’s strong resemblance to the young Jean-Paul Belmondo is more to the point, actually, as “Synonyms” unfolds with the breezy, improvisational bite of a lost New Wave film. Writer-director Lapid (“The Kindergarten Teacher”) is based in Tel Aviv but he lived in Paris after his own stint in the Israeli army, and “Synonyms” has a rueful ache for connection and completion that feels intensely personal. At the same time, the movie is often very funny and often at Yoav’s expense; that Lapid co-wrote the screenplay with his father, the writer and social psychologist Haim Lapid, suggests he’s getting distance on a fraught period in his life while mending some long-broken fences.
None of which makes it easier for Yoav as he bulls his way through his newly adopted country and culture. The other Israelis he meets in Paris are obsessed with their own manliness: Fellow security guards, who bully immigrant workers at an apartment complex; a big, sweet lummox named Yaron (Uria Hayek) who likes to slap a yarmulke on his head and stare down Parisians on the Metro, eager to prove he’s no Jewish wimp. There’s an explosively comic wrestling match that comes out of nowhere, as well as semi-surreal moments, like a nightclub scene in which Yoav tries to be the hardest Parisian partier of all. The implication of “Synonyms” is that to be an Israeli man is by definition a neurosis.
But can you redefine yourself by running away? Against his culture’s self-conscious toughness, Yoav valorizes Hector, the Trojan War hero who fled when he saw Achilles coming, and Lapid often films his hero scampering through the streets or stranded on one of the many bridges crossing the Seine. The irony that Yoav slowly awakens to — which is the drama of the movie, really — is that he’ll always be an outsider and an oddity to his new countrymen, even to Caroline, and that France has its own brutish side. The lyrics to “The Marseillaise” that Yoav recites in his French Integration course run red with blood.
“Synonyms” turns increasingly oblique in its final half hour, as it dawns on Yoav that the door he’s hammering at may never open and let him in. But the sight of this desolate young man strutting about Paris in a borrowed orange trenchcoat is not one you’ll soon forget, nor the exhilarating film that swirls around him.
Directed by Nadav Lapid. Written by Nadav and Haim Lapid. Starring Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevilotte. At Kendall Square. 123 minutes. Unrated (as R: graphic nudity, language). In French and Hebrew, with subtitles.