Synecdoche, New York is a reminder that there is original thought in US cinema, and films that merit regard as works of art. The directorial debut of America’s genius screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, it is a complex, troubling film which, while undoubtedly weird, will speak to anyone who’s listening.
If Being John Malkovich was most explicitly about identity, and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind about love – both viewed via the tangled travels through time and perception of Kaufman’s gymnastic imagination – then Synecdoche is about mortality; as tortured theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) puts it, the fact that we are all “hurtling towards death.”
Cotard is one of those whose negativity and hypochondria will do nothing to slow the process, nor make life enjoyable. At first, the film plays as a pungent, but relatively normal tale of mid-life crisis, Cotard’s alienation of his wife (Catherine Keener) and affairs with a box-office girl (Samantha Morton) and actress (Michelle Williams) being the recognisable fumbling of a man who has lost his way.
But then he embarks on his life’s work – literally – a theatre project that he declares will derive its content from the real lives of its cast, its form becoming apparent as they progress. And from this moment, in keeping with Cotard’s sprawling, inchoate ambition, the film itself jumps off the cliff – into that Kaufmanesque surrealism where characters’ real and created selves become intertwined, and near-madness ensues.
Suddenly five years have passed, then 17, as the “play” becomes bigger and bigger, vaguer and vaguer. Cotard’s fantasies and fears, bereavements and paranoia all find their way into the improvisations on stage, where he has appointed an actor to play himself, who then begins to tell him how to behave in real life.
There are many moments of cheerful comedy, from Keener’s art-posturing self-discovery in Berlin, to Morton’s purchase and habitation of a house that is endlessly on fire, to Hope Davis’s fruity turn as an amorous marriage councillor. But the dominant mood reminds me of one of Paul Simon’s most poignant lyrics, for Old Friends: “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy. Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears.”
But there is a certain, paradoxical positive to be derived, for the audience at least. As Cotard fast forwards towards the end of his life, lonely and full of regret, the film’s view of man’s ephemerality is so terribly sad that it leaves one with an intense desire to seize the day.
Sunday Herald, May 2009