Synonyms is French as hell, which is a bit ironic in and of itself. This is the fourth film made by Israeli director Nadav Lapid, and it's about an Israeli man named Yoav (Tom Mercier); but it's also Lapid's first movie made outside of Israel, and it's specifically about how Yoav attempts to bury his own identity in a strident, performative French-ness. So maybe all the ways that this feels almost like a parodic exaggeration of French art film tendencies is just that: a parody, a sign of the film being just as outrageously concerned with seeming French as its protagonist. I don't think I'm willing to commit to that reading, but it seemed worth at least putting out there.

Synonyms is also the winner of the 2019 Golden Bear, the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, and this feels exactly right. The winners of the Big Three European festivals this year are so fantastically typical for those awards: Venice gave the Golden Lion to Joker, a very mainstream-accessible, sociologically-minded film that puts on the clothes of art cinema but isn't really; Cannes gave the Palme d'Or to Parasite, a slightly less-outré work by one of the world's major auteur filmmakers; and Berlin went with this explicitly political, pointedly chilly art film that presents itself as an intellectual exercise to decode rather than a narrative to engage with. It is just about the most "the kind of movie that wins at Berlin" film to win at Berlin in the 2010s, give or take 2012's Caesar Must Die. This is not a good thing nor a bad thing, but it was an impression I couldn't shake from the moment it became clear what the movie's game was.

And that game goes like this: Yoav is poking around Paris, attempting to deny every aspect of his past and his nationality as a means of protesting the hypocritical violence perpetrated by his home country, communicating with the world around him through the means of a French-Israeli dictionary. He manages to find his way into an empty apartment on an icy cold day, and takes a bath; when he emerges, he finds his clothes have been stolen and he is trapped, naked, in a place he doesn't know at all (among the Very French Things that Synonyms does: it indulges in an astonishing quantity of nudity). He is taken in and clothed, and damn near adopted, by the extremely attractive young duo who respond to his panicked door-knocking: Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) who seem at the start of the movie like they're either having sex, siblings, or both. By the end of the movie, this ambiguity has not been completely resolved, though they're both obviously interested in fucking Yoav.

There's a big fat metaphor that's hulking in this scenario; indeed, as I re-read that paragraph, there are two. But the one that the film is more interested in developing is the relationship between the brash immigrant with literally not even a change of clothes to call his own, and the indolently wealthy white European hedonists who patronise him and make him the centerpiece of their erotic fixations. There's never a moment when the film's intentions on this point are unclear - it ends with a shot (more precisely, with some particular blocking) that deserves some kind of prize for being the year's most ham-fisted visual metaphor that still manages to work emotionally and dramatically despite being disgustingly obvious. And that's just one out of many scenes where the film stops to scream at us for a bit: there's a photo shoot that's about creating a fetish object out of the foreign Other in a way that's simultaneously skin-crawling in its horror, tear-jerking in its pathos, and insufferably provocative in its oh-are-you-shocked quantity of nudity. Or there's a moment where Yoav lectures at a group of musicians, a wrathful, self-righteous rant that's barely coherent and makes him seem like a much bigger asshole than the people being assholes to him.

The point being: Synonyms is doing a whole lot, and plenty of it sticks. On the other hand, plenty of it is groan-inducing and overly literal, the kind of blunt message movie that, if it were produced by a Hollywood studio and in English, would surely have pissed off the Berlin jury rather than inspired them to hand the film a prize (that jury, incidentally, was led by Juliette Binoche, and... yes, this feels like a movie Juliette Binoche would admire. The jury also included Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who has a similar inability to treat social themes with anything less than full-on hectoring). Sometimes it does both: over the course of that photo shoot, I went from thinking it was the film's best and most troubling scene, to thinking it was the most pandering and obvious.

In general, Synonyms is at its best when it can get the hell away from all of the above, and simply tell the human story of Yoav, an innocent abroad with nothing but his moral convictions to guide him, whether they're admirable or offensive or somewhere in between. Mercier, a first-time actor, has incredible screen presence and a fascinatingly impenetrable face; his expressions are emotionally evocative without necessarily telling us what emotion we're meant to feel, and the film uses this ambiguity to great effect multiple times. And the film has some interesting ways of smuggling stylistic excess into its stripped-down realism: the massive, mustard-yellow felt overcoat that Emile gives to Yoav, who then wears it like a uniform for the rest of the movie, is a strong contender for Best Costume of 2019, looking ridiculous as Mercier disappears into it, while also giving him a way to play stubborn defiance. The movie is fueled by the war between the actor and the coat, as he fights to keep it from upstaging him, and this becomes one of the finest, subtlest expressions of the movie's themes.

At times, it's also just a pleasurable piece of cinema. There's a dance party scene that's one of the best things I've seen this year: the camera starts low and claustrophobic, swimming through a see of bodies, before cutting to a wide-open composition that feels exquisitely liberating as a result of that extreme contrast. Meanwhile, the pure kinetic joy of movement turns the film into a celebration of fleshiness in a way that all of the morbid nudity isn't trying to.

The whole thing, in other words, is a hugely mixed bag, though its best moments are stronger than its worst moments are weak, and there are more of them. Its heart is in the right place, but its head needs to be clearer. It's trying to be cozily human and icily austere in a mixture that doesn't really come together, but at least gives the movie a stranger relationship to its political message than a simple lecture would be. The top prize at one of the world's premiere film festivals is probably excessive, but credit where it's due: I saw this one a while ago, and it has been sticking in my brain tenaciously. There's not much that I respect more than a movie that can do that, whether it's entirely coherent and "successful" or not.