Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson
Worlds within worlds within worlds. A life is comprised not just of experiences, but of how the mind filters, understands, organizes and relates those experiences. Because of that, a life cannot be understood in simple terms; an event is not just an event, but something defined by multiple layers of meaning, some of which remain hidden. Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York is a film of almost unfathomable ambition, one rich with ideas about the relationship between the mind and reality, which starts as a story of the interior and then just keeps burrowing deeper and deeper until finally turning itself inside out. It’s a film which demands multiple viewings and which can, perhaps, never be fully unpacked – but it’s well worth a try.
Synecdoche, New York is about Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director whose relationship with his painter wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), is nearing its end. As they are preparing to leave New York and spend several months in Germany for Adele’s work, she announces suddenly that she would prefer it if Caden stayed behind, allowing them to gain some perspective on their relationship and its future, or lack of it. While in Germany, however, Adele becomes a celebrated artist and instead of returning with their daughter, Olive, they remain overseas. Caden, meanwhile, receives a MacArthur fellowship and decides to use it to mount an elaborate and impossible play meant to capture nothing less than the essence of life. His vision is of such a grand scale that it takes decades to put it together and a warehouse to stage it, and as the play evolves, the street on which the warehouse is located is eventually recreated (warehouse included) within the warehouse, and Caden and his assistant, Hazel (Samantha Morton), become characters within the play, with other actors playing the actors who are playing the characters of “Caden” and “Hazel.”
Caden’s personal life, forever informing the play and keeping it from ever being staged for an audience, is as complicated as his work. Aside from Adele, who is heard but never seen again after she leaves for Germany, and Olive, whose descent into sex work becomes Caden’s greatest source of torment, there’s also Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Adele’s best friend and Caden’s arch nemesis due to her role in shaping Olive’s life, Claire (Michelle Williams), an actress who becomes Caden’s second wife, her devout encouragement of his dream eroding into despair and then revulsion as she’s forced to participate in Caden’s attempts to work out his feelings for Hazel through the play, Tammy (Emily Watson), who plays the stage version of Hazel and becomes briefly involved with Caden, Madeline (Hope Davis), Caden’s therapist, and Millicent/Ellen (Dianne Wiest), who plays one of the stage versions of Caden and eventually “takes over” playing the real Caden, relegating him to play the role of “Ellen,” a cleaning woman who scrubs Adele’s apartment.
The ways that Caden relates to these various women reveals everything there is to know about his character, provided that you accept the premise that virtually everything in the movie is meant to be metaphorical rather than literal, every image and event filtered through Caden’s perspective. Caden’s marriage, for example, ostensibly fails because Adele loses interest in him and leaves, but consider this: when Caden stages his play, it’s of the largest scale imaginable, whereas Adele’s paintings are of miniscule size – are the paintings truly so small, or is that just the way Caden sees them, the way he sees Adele’s artistic ambitions in relation to his own, the way that he reduces her work in his own mind in order to reconcile himself to the amount of praise she’s received from the art world (consider also that Adele’s maiden name is “Lack” - without Caden, she should be nothing)? His second marriage fails because Claire is forced, day in and day out, to participate in Caden’s intense naval gazing, navigating not only their own relationship, but his encroaching relationship with Hazel. She becomes less a wife than a tool for his personal exploration, a person meant to support Caden without any degree of reciprocity. It’s all about Caden, his dreams, his needs, his anxieties – even Adele’s art, when he looks at it with magnifying glasses, turns out to express whatever is currently on his mind.
Of all these relationships, the one that develops between Caden and Millicent/Ellen is arguably the most interesting and revealing. Before his sexual encounter with Tammy, he confides to her that he’s often thought that he would have been a more successful woman than man, not because of any attraction he has for men, but simply because he feels he would have “been better” at being a woman than he has been at being a man; and throughout the film Caden proves to be his own biggest hurdle in terms of finally getting the play off the ground, forever changing his mind about what the play should be and how it should be done. Once Millicent/Ellen takes over as Caden, suddenly the piece seems to come into focus, to take on the meaning it’s been missing, to reach its completion. Millicent/Ellen does what Caden cannot do and, to top it off, becomes the literal voice in his head, giving him an earpiece through which she directs his every movement and thought right up until the moment when he dies and the story is finally complete.
There’s so much going on in Synecdoche, New York that I’ve really only scratched the surface here. Its vision is as grand, as far reaching, as impossible as that of its protagonist, and it’s so densely layered that one might never truly get to the bottom of it. It’s a difficult and sometimes daunting piece of work, but a truly rewarding one, packed with big ideas and great performances, and a darkly comedic undercurrent. It’s a film unlike any other – and almost without equal.