Theatre director Caden Cotard feels like he is dying, and he wants to do something important while he is still here. He starts an immense play about life, love and death, which becomes a stand-in for his real life. The whole movie turns into a profound exploration of life, love and death. Mostly death.
Synecdoche, New York (2008) is a film by writer and director Charlie Kaufman. If that doesn’t tell you anything, consider that he is the man behind Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation. (2002) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). And if that doesn’t tell you anything, you have some treats waiting for you. In that sense, even though it is hard to describe Synecdoche, New York in order to recommend it to you or to warn you about, I can say that if you like Kaufman movies, you’ll probably like this one as well.
Kaufman’s big thing is to tell very human stories about deeply felt emotions, but using a fantasy form of magical realism to achieve his effects. None of his movies are easy and tend to mess around with your sense of time, space and identity, but they are always touching and surprising. Kaufman himself mentioned in interviews that he laments that so many movies are generic and have so little to offer in the sense of deeper reflection on human emotions. It is clear from this that Kaufman sees a role for cinema as a form of art.
That’s how you should approach Synecdoche, New York, as a slightly confusing but touching work of art. It either means something to you, or it doesn’t. But it is up to you to interact with the movie on an individual basis. This review therefore is a personal interpretation and you might take something different away from the movie.
I’ll briefly talk about the start of the movie just to explain how it communicates its ideas to the audience, and what the central theme of it seems to be. It starts with Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seeing himself in a mirror. This immediate says something about the entire film, but at the start I am not sure yet what it means. We’ll find out later. In the background, we hear a poem on the radio about how everyone is fundamentally alone. He doesn’t feel right. As he wakes up, he is surrounded by messages of deterioration and dying. The milk is expired. The TV talks about invisible viruses growing undetected. Tension is rising that something weird is going to happen and he gets into a little accident. On the way back from the doctor he tells his family: “it’s the start of something awful.” But he just throws that line out there as a presentiment.
As the film progresses, things keep on going wrong in his daily life. Odd medical problems, bad phone signals. All these signs of decay are like a mirror of his own depressed state of mind. It’s like a whimsical nightmare, in which the scenes and dialogue are all sort of unusual and artsy, but with a background tension of encroaching destruction. It’s about the uncomfortable feeling that even in young people, the unavoidable destruction of old age and death is already built in from the start. Occasionally, the magical realism creeps in and something happens that is plainly impossible. It makes me feel like I am watching a theatre play instead of a realistic depiction of the world. The film itself becomes a mirror then, in which the invisible encroaching destruction that also exists in our real world is made explicitly visible on screen.
Looking back at the movie, now that Philip Seymour Hoffman has committed suicide, I can’t help but feeling that this was a very personal film for him. Especially when you hear him say lines such as: “I feel like I am dying. I don’t know what is wrong with me. I want to do something important while I am still here.” He plays such a lonely character, the opposite of joyful and lively. It doesn’t help that he is stuck in a loveless marriage and his doctors don’t even look him in the eyes. No connection anywhere to be found.
This all sounds awfully depressing, I know. But the story is also about choosing life and self-expression. As his psychiatrist asks: “why did you kill yourself?” She realizes she misspoke and changes it to “why would you kill yourself?” The story then changes to show love and connection as a wonderful sign of life in the inevitable face of death.
I am trying to make sense of the movie while writing this out. The relationships that we follow on screen become a theatre play by themselves, as Caden’s life and circumstances become his own theatre masterpiece, in which he is only playing the most depressed character. But since he is also the director of the play at the same time, he knowingly occupies the darkest spot, even glorifies in it, it seems to me, and he is aware of how love and connection play out around him as an antidote to death.
Halfway through the movie, things get more confusing and the story moves to more metaphysical terrain. It becomes much more than what it set out to be at the start. As the screenplay of the movie and the theatre play in the movie start to merge into one thing, Caden Cotard becomes the author of the story, and the movie is not so much a tragedy about Caden Cotard anymore, but a work of self-pity. The theatre play progressively takes over the telling of the story from the actual movie. In an Inception (2010)-like way, the production of the theatre play then becomes part of the play itself, and Caden no longer even needs to play himself, but can even be a side character in his own story.
In the end, the movie gains the point-of-view that is similar to the inner theatre inside our own minds, from which we watch our own lives play out. It is the seat from which you see yourself act out your bad habits. The movie is heavy, heady and rich. It is challenging, and emotionally brutal at times, and keeps on growing throughout its running time into something big.
I feel like I need to rewatch this movie in later stages of life. For now, I’ll just say that it is a movie made from the heart, and therefore reaches the heart. Very touching.