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NYFF 2019: Oh Mercy!, Synonyms

Roschdy Zem and Antoine Reinartz in Oh Mercy!

Arnaud Desplechin’s returned to his hometown onscreen many times: “I still have to go back in my tracks, as a malediction—not as a dream, but as a curse,” he’s said of Roubaix, where My Sex Life and My Golden Years‘ protagonist stand-in Paul Dédalus hails from and where A Christmas Tale unfolds. Desplechin’s also shot digitally before, but this is the first time he’s ever aggressively leaned into it: like TaleOh Mercy! also starts during the holiday season, but—opening strings of Christmas lights over city streets aside—the dominant colors aren’t red and green but the familiar digital color-correction staples of orange and blue. This could be disastrous, but Desplechin knows what he’s doing: the colors are carefully controlled within the frame rather than slathering everything into monochrome, and some of the shots (a man stumbling at night towards the blue light sign of the police station under orange city lights and gray haze) can be gorgeous. (And, thank goodness, all the daylight coming through windows looks actually controlled and sculpted rather than blowing out into indiscriminate white patches.) Desplechin has always enjoyed a jagged handheld camera, but the ones being operated here are obviously lighter, accordingly moving in quicker, jitterier ways—the zooms also carry a different weight.

Taking his main plotline from the 2008 French TV documentary Roubaix, commissariat central (he’s cited The Wrong Man as a reference point for turning documentary crime into narrative), Desplechin centers the narrative around two police officers who create multiple obvious binaries. Commanding officer Daoud (Roschdy Zem) immigrated with his Algerian family to Roubaix when he was 7; they’ve all returned home, but he’s stayed, embracing the curse of his hometown. Louis (Antoine Reinartz) is new to the city, younger and tormented by religious doubts Daoud shows no trace of—the bits where Louis prays futilely to an unresponding god, mourning the woeful conditions of of his new beat (75% of the city is a “no-go” zone, he claims), are very Diary of a Country Priest, or at least angstily Catholic. The differences between the two cops also echo those between Desplechin, who speaks no Arabic, and his brother, who does, and the differing vantages that gives them on their home. If you’re rolling your eyes, I don’t blame you, but Desplechin-heads will want to consider that.

Consensus Cannes response pegged Oh Mercy! as an unexpectedly dreary and anonymous procedural, but the first half’s more characteristically heterogeneous than that. It takes a good while to make the murders the focus: there are investigations of arson and runaway minors to perform, drunken brawls to break up, etc. Desplechin’s admitted to being “slightly uncomfortable” in making a film from the perspective of police officers, which is interesting: ten or so years ago, I don’t think the idea that the cop genre now had to be interrogated for its relationship to corrupt/oppressive powers would have come up (but it’s a good question!). Regardless, Oh Mercy! goes out of its way to defuse that with an early sequence where Daoud slowly breaks down a white man’s stereotype-derived claims to having been blowtorched by bearded, turban-wearing Muslims—an example, presumably, of good community policing. The sprawl of daily concerns these cops have to deal with is lively enough, and there’s choice comedy at unexpected moments (“No man scares me,” announces a robbery victim, “I was a shepherd”).

The back half digs into the murder investigation, with couple Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier) emerging quickly as the obvious culprits. Establishing their guilt gets the film into its Wrong Man component via exhaustive interrogations (first separately, than together), with Daoud as Good Cop and all of his other colleagues simultaneously doubling or tripling down on Bad Cop, minus Desplechin’s typically chromatically jabbing scores or unexpected needle drops. (Sudden fits of targeted yelling do the rhythmically disconcerting job instead.) This latest homecoming attempts to change Desplechin’s MO significantly in both form and by adopting some kind of broader sociological perspective rather than running once more through a solely personal lens, and I kind of liked it.

The press copy for Nadav Lapid’s third feature stresses its autobiographical ramifications: “like his Synonyms protagonist, [Lapid] soon felt he had to leave Israel determined never to come back. Uprooting himself, he moved to Paris because of his self-professed admiration for Napoleon and a passion for soccer star Zidane and Godard movies.” Quite a package there, and Lapid’s stand-in Yoav (Tom Mercier) is consistent with that biographical sketch: one of the first things he does upon arriving to Paris is buy postcards of Napoleon and Kurt Cobain and steal one of Vincent Van Gogh, some kind of ghastly trinity of inspiration. The subjects, as in Lapid’s first feature, Policeman, are a certain kind of toxically confrontational Israeli masculinity and hatred for the country inextricably mingled with an inability to truly separate. (In between these two features came The Kindergarten Teacher, anchored around a female protagonist.) Unlike Policeman, a portentous tragedy in two parts, Synonyms takes an early-Godard-inflected (yup!) sketch comedy approach to the material while amping up the tragic undercurrents over 123 minutes.

Yoav arrives at his first Paris apartment and—through a series of circumstances so absurd as to immediately indicate this is not operating in the realm of naturalism—introduced to Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte). Emile “writes” (he’s working on a clearly risible novel, Nights of Inertia) and likes to drink a lot (it’s what writers do!), but really he’s the fully-bankrolled idle rich son of a factory owner. Yoav instantly forms a bosom buddies friendship with Emile, sharing stories of his time in the Israeli army and elsewhere, while the girlfriend has to put up with all this regardless of how she feels about it—the love triangle component is, of course, implicit from the get-go. Emile and Caroline act like hot crazy French people from better movies, and Yoav’s dual attraction to them feels more cinephilic than real, which is almost certainly deliberate. (Indeed, Dolmaire made his feature debut as adolescent Paul Dédalus in My Golden Years, while Chevillotte made hers in Philippe Garrel’s Lover For a Day—they’re coming from inside the establishment French arthouse, which I’m sure Lapid is aware of.)

Those titular synonyms come from the French dictionary Yoav picks up first thing, the better to spit out imprecations against Israel, with “odious” followed by ten more choice adjectives. Refusing to speak Hebrew, sticking to French (or resorting to English if absolutely necessary), Yoav idolizes the country where (just like in the movies!) there are young women dancing in cafes before male gaze-friendly camera positions. But he also hangs out with some of his countrymen, notably Yaron (Uria Hayik), a particularly bullheaded lunatic who walks up to couples having a beer at the bar to let them know, unprovoked, he’s Jewish/from Israel. There’s a good amount of belligerence and machismo on the Israeli side, and if we’re accepting that we’re in the realm of satirical sketches juxtaposing this with an equally reductive view of French life (slightly complicated, but not much, by the citizenship application classes Yoav takes), that’s fine—this is “Godardian” only in the sense of the most facile aspects of his early work, but spritely and unpredictable enough.

Between the fighting and back-of-moped shots, this is a very physical movie, one that often looks dangerous for the gung-ho performers. Given that this is unpredictable enough and frequently changes MOs, I was fine for a stretch, less so as Synonyms kept working itself into a lather around a character whose behavior increasingly comes off not as symbolic of a certain rage but merely annoying, the kind of thing no one would wish to encounter on a subway after a long working day. And (spoiler alert, I suppose) I don’t think I’ll see a single more literal-minded symbolic final shot this year than here: after a long monologue about how Yoav has to go home and can never be French but only Israeli, he tries to batter down Emile’s door by running into it repeatedly. He wants to be French but the door of society is closed to him—got it!

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