‘When are we going to get an audience in here,’ asks a set assistant in Charlie Kaufman-penned Synecdoche, New York, ‘it’s been 17 years.’ And so time again tries to catch up with Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in this intriguing film.
From the writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, Synecdoche, New York is another film concerned with twisting reality whilst filling itself with bizarre happenings. It is because of its peculiarity that any attempt to describe it succinctly is nigh impossible, the nearest attempt at an explanation being that it centres on Cotard’s attempt to stage a theatrical representation of life in New York, as its title suggests. The play becomes his life’s work and he subsequently loses whatever grip he ever held on reality (which was never much). The set is built in a warehouse that, through the course of the film, increasingly resembles a Tardis as it begins to hold a whole world. While his work begins to thrive, Cotard finds himself ostracised from reality and his daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) who becomes, quite literally, foreign to him.
The film, although never preachy, is quite clearly a statement on society. Focusing on ‘dating, birth, death, [and] life’, its exploration of one man’s quest to find meaning in the world he finds himself in leads to a complete unravelling of reality; either a warning against such a quest or a suggestion of the world we are heading toward with our preoccupation with growing up fast. The film is a visual representation of a fear many people encounter and is slightly harrowing because of it.
All lines between reality and fiction are erased; when Ellen (Dianne Wiest)’s role in the play slowly increases she frets over the implementation of the ‘fourth wall’, even though this is something that has never truly existed in the film. Synecdoche, New York’s fourth wall is stripped away in its first few seconds and the world it leaves behind is twisted until it comes full circle and mirrors reality. Wiest’s character speaks of the world Cotard has created, a world between what she terms as ‘stasis’ and ‘anti-stasis’ and this is exactly the void in which Synecdoche, New York appears. Cotard seems to spend the entirety of his life obsessing over the big issues of life and death and the minute details in bewteen, including fixing his bathroom tap and cleanliness. Perhaps it is no irony that his life becomes scripted by a cleaner in a narrative move similar to that used in Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction.
It is often hard to see how it has been a ‘smash hit comedy’, as its casing advertises, as there are few laugh-out-loud moments. Instead you are left with a film that focuses on a man who, essentially, ends up watching his life played out before him. It is a film that snowballs and almost overtakes itself. Just missing the brilliance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York is nonetheless a mesmerising and captivating film that implores you to watch it again. Difficult to categorise and impossible to solve, its preoccupations are intricate whilst its intentions are vast. Synecdoche, New York is a compelling work not to be missed.
Best performance; Philip Seymour Hoffman as the troubled Cotard.
Best bit; Perhaps not the ‘best’ bit, but Hazel (Samantha Morton)’s burning house is definitely one of the most troublesome parts of the film.