Thursday, February 05, 2015

All the world's a stage

"Can the next film you choose have a plot?" Those were Jen's first words to me after we'd finished watching Synecdoche, New York. Nearly two weeks on, and my head still hurts. Whoever described it as "the smash hit comedy of the year" (as the DVD box proudly proclaimed) definitely has a sense of humour. At root, it is (at a push) a romcom, but of the most tragic and bizarre kind.

That it would be weird was pretty much a given, considering it was the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the man behind the scripts for such off-the-wall and mind-boggling films as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. It has a very cryptic feel - you get the impression you're expected to be looking out for clues (names, recurrent phrases, snatches of ostensibly incidental text) and are regularly challenged to make sense of what's going on (such as by the regular skips forward in time, and the house that is continually on fire).

But the film's bleakness is perhaps more of a surprise - it graphically demonstrates the ways in which we are both constrained in making choices and then condemned by what we choose, as well as emphasising the inexorable passage of time and the inevitability of death.

The central character is theatre director Caden Cotard, a hypocondriac obsessed with obituaries for whom all pleasure has been sucked out of life and whose relationships with women end messily and unsatisfactorily. When he receives a MacArthur Fellowship, he decides to stage a performance that will hold a mirror up to real life. Unable to understand his own motivations, let alone those of others, he uses the dramatic process to gain self-knowledge through the perceptions he and others have of his character.

This being a Charlie Kaufman film, the project spirals out of control, becoming absurdly gargantuan in scale to the point that the line between fiction and reality is obliterated and the set is practically indistinguishable from the real New York. In the end, overwhelmed by what he's created, Cotard effectively abdicates from the position of director of his own life, assuming the role of another character. He apparently draws some comfort from the fact that he no longer has to make decisions or take responsibility, instead being told what to do and say via an earpiece.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb as Cotard - anxious, bumbling, trapped, downtrodden, an emotional and psychological wreck - and so it was a fitting tribute to his memory that we found ourselves watching Synecdoche, New York around the first anniversary of his death. Nathan Rabin's overview of Hoffman's whole career on The Dissolve makes for essential reading.

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