Saturday, 23 May 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Tom Noonan.

Score: 7.5 / 10

This excellent review is by regular LFF reviewer, Sarah Louise Dean.

Its not often that once having seen a film, you need to consult a dictionary. Its even rarer to do so before the film. In fact, I needed to do both. Frankly, I was stuck at the title. For the uninitiated, Synecdoche (pronounced (si-nek-doc-kee) means, amongst other things, referring to one characteristic of something in order to refer to the whole. For example saying you have ‘coppers’ in your pocket when you mean you have pennies, which are made from copper.

Synecdoche -New York is both written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, he who wrote the beautiful yet absurd Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. Be warned, this film is not a linear fairytale, but if you like being challenged then you should give this a go. The name of the film might be a little pretentious, but it is a clever and telling insight into a moving and multilayered story. Kaufman is asking whether, by focussing on one small part of your life, you can establish the meaning of life itself, and he doesn’t care if he alienates half the audience by doing so. Synecdoche is one of those films that asks many more questions than it answers.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding as Caden Cotard, a theatre director in the New York suburb of Schenectady (get it?) who is married to Adele (played by the wonderful Catherine Keener) an artist specialising in miniature paintings. The marriage is not particularly happy and one day Adele announces that she is taking their 4 year old daughter Olive and her best friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Berlin for an exhibition of her work. Whilst away Caden begins a flirtation with Theatre box office clerk Heather (Samantha Morton with a decent American accent and an impressive cleavage) whilst suffering a number of mysterious ailments, any of which may be life threatening, or merely psychological. Caden’s revival of Death of a Salesman starring Michelle William’s Claire is a resounding success and off the back of it he receives a seemingly limitless grant from the Macarthur Foundation (a real life body which anonymously bestows vast sums of money on creative ‘geniuses’). Caden uses his new found wealth and purpose to create an ever evolving reality-based theatre project. He hires actors to effectively live their own lives in a huge warehouse under his direction. Along the way Caden develops personal relationships with Claire (played by Williams as just the right side of ingĂ©nue) and Heather, whilst trying to make contact with Olive in Berlin. Caden builds his set to resemble his own apartment, hires Sammy (played expertly by Tom Noonan as a kind of Larry David with added pathos) to play himself and later Emily Watson’s Tammy to play Heather, and the lines between art and reality become increasingly blurry. Caden’s relationships with his wife, his lovers and his daughter grow, develop and ultimately flounder, whilst at the same time, the theatre piece remains unfinished and my not be shown to an audience. Is Caden a miserable failure, or is this his grand plan? Later a celebrated theatre actress arrives (Dianne Wiest) saying she wants to assist and relieve Caden of some of his burden.

Although the film is hugely interesting, the plot is not easy to wade through, and Kaufman expects the audience to have an appreciation of the theatre industry which most won’t have. As shown when Caden says to Claire “Today, I want you to play yourself”, and she looks completely perplexed, Synecdoche is not without humour, its just the dry kind. Its certainly a work of genius to create something just straightforward enough to mean something different to every viewer, and it has a clever ending. I’m just not sure whether I could stomach a repeat viewing, just yet.

Synecdoche, like a great deal of Kaufman’s work, also has an inexplicable sadness about it. It wrings out the poignancy of life in a blackly comical manner. But, in parts the film is just plain weird. I found it easier to cope by thinking that time is irrelevant in the movie, and that its normal for Heather’s house to always be on fire. But the questions kept coming. Is there some message in Adele’s work being on such a small scale and Caden’s being huge? What is happening to the world outside whilst Caden magnifies his internal life? But it is this Kaufmanesque weirdness that makes Synecdoche so pleasurable. The movie should also be praised for featuring countless well drawn female characters.

Synecdoche does not shy away from the bigger issues. Are we in control of our own destiny? Can we be absolved from responsibility by allowing someone else to dictate our choices? Many will already know if they want to see this film. Some will dismiss Synecdoche as nonsense which fails to entertain. But I’d respond by asking, surely isn’t this what modern cinema is all about? Visual puns, hyper-reality played out by professionals at the top of their game, and a film that you won’t see anywhere else, which all justifies the cost of your expensive cinema ticket. Ultimately I don’t care that I couldn’t work out exactly what it all meant – I was entertained and it made me think, and for that I am very grateful.

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