Phantasmagorical ‘Synecdoche’ obliterates artistic constructs

When we watch movies, we escape into them. We trade our preoccupations for popcorn and lose ourselves in another world. Most movies entertain, but only the very best slip past our vulnerable gaze and take up residence within us. This is what Synecdoche, New York does; as we watch this exceptional film, it seeps through to our soul and our subconscious and spreads its vast aura across the entirety of our so-called being.

Any attempt at conveying the plot is a betrayal of Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who makes his writing/directing debut with this picture. Here, plot falls prey to the complexity of the protagonist’s emotions and ambitions over the course of his life. Since no length of summary will justly elucidate the story, here’s my one-sentence recap: Caden Cotard – or Philip Seymour Hoffman, since we are constantly asked if there’s a difference – is a lonely but brilliant theater director who, after being abandoned by his wife and daughter, attempts to produce a monumental piece of theater that is “pure and truthful.”

The film unsettles, under the scanty façade of a narrative, by questioning and crossing boundaries we have come to accept as absolute. When Cotard directs Millicent, a woman portraying him in the “play,” she interrupts, “Caden, you’re breaking the fourth wall.” Such walls, according to this film, are social constructs meant to be obliterated.

With the financial backing of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, Cotard builds theatrical worlds within worlds in an enormous warehouse in Manhattan. Time is stopped and skipped, real people and performers become indistinguishable and interchangeable, scenes blend into one another, and virtual spaces are superimposed onto real ones.

If the film sounds dream-like, it’s because it is. For example, one of Cotard’s love interests, Hazel, lives in a house that is eternally engulfed in flames. And there is the theater production, of course, which employs thousands of extras over decades and remains in the rehearsal stage. But while it may seem like a dream, the film is meticulous in a way that dreams are not; everything in this world fits and has a purpose.

Eros, or the life-preservation instinct, is the umbrella for Cotard’s deep-seated desire for intimacy and connectedness. His body represses a tempestuous longing for his wife and daughter that manifests in bizarre somatic symptoms, including eye problems, sycosis and tears before and after sex. Though the film is uncanny, the feelings are not; all Cotard desires is to be “the most special person in the world to just one person.”
Art is the only answer to his loneliness. Early on in the film, Cotard imparts this directorial advice to an underage actor playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: “The tragedy is that you, the young actor, will end up in this very place of desolation.” In mounting his pure and truthful theater piece, Cotard (along with Hoffman and Kaufman) relieves his desolation by forcing other people – actors – to share in it.

Synecdoche is uncomfortably honest and overtly fantastical; it is heartbreaking and, above all, inspiring. At the very least, it will make you think; perhaps you’ll stop procrastinating. Better yet, if you let it, it might lead you to toss your books aside, sprint out of the library and make real contact with that person you’ve passed and smiled at innumerable times but never truly acknowledged. “None of those people is an extra,” Cotard says. “They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”