At the heart of the obliquely thrilling "Synonyms" lies an existential question: Can we ever truly change who we are?

Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid grapples with this head-on in the story of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a disaffected young Israeli who has fled his homeland for Paris, refusing to speak any Hebrew in an attempt to assimilate.

The film is loosely autobiographical: Lapid, who co-wrote the screenplay with his father, Haim Lapid, also lived in Paris in his early 20s. What makes "Synonyms" so compelling is how it explores the theme of identity through a lens of searing self-reflection.

When we first meet the protagonist, he's roaming the streets of nighttime Paris, where he finds his way into an empty apartment, swaddles himself in a sleeping bag and shuffles into the bathroom to take a shower, emerging to find that the sleeping bag has vanished — along with his clothing. Yoav then frantically runs around the building in search of the thief, his clothes or any human contact.

The next morning, two neighbors (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte, playing a caricature of a spoiled, artsy couple) find him huddled naked in a fetal position in his tub, where he has fallen asleep. The pair right away remark on Yoav's body, finding particular fascination with his circumcised penis.

Yoav's body is front-and-center throughout the film. Mercier — a trained dancer and martial artist who is making his acting debut — has an almost sculptural physique, becoming a great blank block of moving marble through which he effortlessly expresses myriad emotional states, from a deer in the headlights to utter determination to escape from something, as Yoav so often reminds us.

But escape from what exactly?

Lapid makes no bones about confronting the issues he has with the modern Israeli police state, particularly its staunch nationalism and hypermasculinity. In quick (and increasingly absurd) flashbacks to Yoav's compulsory military service, we see how these values were instilled in him — values that he now wishes to shed as fast as he can. Aided by his French-Hebrew dictionary, Yoav has a habit of referring to his home country with various adjectives, such as "odious" and "lamentable" (hence the film's title).

While much of the film is elliptical, the starkest expression of Lapid's critique of Israel comes via the character of Yaron, another Israeli immigrant in Paris. Whereas Yoav tries his best to blend in, Yaron (Uria Hayik) is pure macho id, getting in the face of strangers with the blunt greeting, "I am from Israel." During a job interview with Yoav's boss, Yaron engages the man in a spontaneous wrestling match, in a mutual competition for alpha dominance.

Lapid takes advantage of Mercier's dance abilities, filming Yoav as he flows through the frame in a goldenrod-colored overcoat as he recites vocabulary words from his dictionary, all the while avoiding eye contact with others.

But Yoav soon realizes that he's never more Israeli than in France. There's a particularly memorable — and humiliating — scene in which Yoav's desperation for work leads him to take a job with a pornographer who, after entertaining his imperfect French, instructs him to shout his unerotic exclamations in Hebrew.

In the end, "Synonyms" comes, with a sense of resignation, to the same realization about selfhood that Yoav, or any misfit, does: We're bound to ourselves — not just our physical bodies, but our heritage — as long as we roam this Earth.