LFF 2008: Synecdoche, New York

In the last decade Charlie Kaufman has become one of those rare screenwriters whose work has even overshadowed the directors he has worked with. 

This is quite a feat given that he has collaborated with Spike Jonze (on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). 

However, it is fair to say that all those films bear certain recognisable tropes: ingenious narratives, surreal images and a tragi-comic view of human affairs.

It would also be fair to assume that his directorial debut would be similar, but Synecdoche, New York does not just bear token similarities to his previous scripts. 

In fact it is so Kaufman-esque that it takes his ideas to another level of strangeness, which is quite something if you bear in mind what has come before.

The story centres around a theatre director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who starts to re-evaluate life after both his health and marriage start to break down. 

He receives a grant to do something artistically adventurous and decides to stage an enormously ambitious production inside a giant warehouse.

What follows is a strange and often baffling movie, complete with the kind of motifs that are peppered throughout Kaufman’s scripts: someone lives in a house oblivious to the fact that it is permanently on fire; a theatrical venue the size of several aircraft hangars is casually described as a place where Shakespeare is performed; and visitors to an art gallery view microscopic paintings with special goggles. 

But despite the oddities and the Chinese-box narrative, this is a film overflowing with invention and ideas. 

It explores the big issues of life and death but also examines the nature of art and performance – a lot of the film, once it goes inside the warehouse, is a mind-boggling meditation on our lives as a performance. 

Imagine The Truman Show rewritten by Samuel Beckett and directed by Luis Buñuel and you’ll get some idea of what Kaufman is aiming for here. 

I found a lot of the humour very funny, but the comic sensibility behind the jokes is dry and something of an acquired taste.

Much of the film hinges on Seymour Hoffman’s outstanding central performance in which he conveys the vulnerability and determination of a man obsessed with doing something worthwhile before he dies. 

The makeup for the characters supervised by Mike Marino is also first rate, creating a believable ageing process whilst the sets are also excellent, even if some of the CGI isn’t always 100% convincing. 

The supporting cast too is very impressive: Catherine KeenerMichelle WilliamsSamantha MortonEmily WatsonHope DavisTom Noonan and Dianne Weist all contribute fine performances and fit nicely into the overall tone of the piece. 

Although the world Kaufman creates will alienate some viewers, it slowly becomes a haunting meditation on how humans age and die.

As the film moves towards resolution it becomes surprisingly moving with some of the deeper themes slowly, but powerfully, rising to the surface.

This means that although it will have it’s admirers (of which I certainly include myself) it is likely to prove too esoteric for mass consumption as it has a downbeat tone despite the comic touches.

Having seen it only once, this is a film I instantly wanted to revisit, so dense are the layers and concepts contained within it.

On first viewing it became a bit too rich at times for it’s own good. However, it isn’t often that filmmakers aim this high.

I certainly haven’t seen a film like this in years.

N.B. Apparently the first word of the title is pronounced “Syn-ECK-duh-kee”. 

The following video from Cannes back in May showed the confusion over how to pronounce it:

Synecdoche, New York screens at the London Film Festival on Tuesday 28th and Wednesday 29th October

* It opens in the US on October 24th in limited release but the UK release is TBA *

UPDATE 25/10/08: In an earlier version of this article I wrote that Judy Chin was in charge of makeup for this film but just to clarify, Mike Marino designed the ageing makeups whilst Judy was department head of the rest. (Thanks to Mike for getting in touch to point this out.) 

Synecdoche, New York at the IMDb

Watch the press conference at the official Cannes site
> Check out the reaction from Cannes about the film
Cannes Festivals

Cannes 2008 Reactions: Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman is best known as the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

His directorial debut is Synecdoche, New York and it screened today in competition at Cannes.

It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theatre director in Schenectady, New York who has to cope with his wife leaving him and a mysterious illness.

Worried about his life, he moves his theater company to a warehouse where he attempts to create a life-size replica of New York as part of his new play. Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton and Hope Davis co-star.

Here is a summary of the critical reaction:

Todd McCarthy of Variety praises it as ‘wildly ambitious’ and ‘overreaching‘:

Like an anxious artist afraid he may not get another chance, Charlie Kaufman tries to Say It All in his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York.”

A wildly ambitious and gravely serious contemplation of life, love, art, human decay and death, the film bears Kaufman’s scripting fingerprints in its structural trickery and multi-plane storytelling.

At its core a study of a theater director whose life goes off the rails into uncharted artistic territory, it’s the sort of work that on its face appears overreaching and isn’t entirely digestible on one viewing.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times enjoys the ideas, invention and humour of the film:

Mr. Kaufman, the wildly inventive screenwriter of ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, has, in his first film as a director, made those efforts look almost conventional.

Like his protagonist, a beleaguered theater director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he has created a seamless and complicated alternate reality, unsettling nearly every expectation a moviegoer might have about time, psychology and narrative structure.

But though the ideas that drive “Synecdoche, New York” are difficult and sometimes abstruse, the feelings it explores are clear and accessible.

These include the anxiety of artistic creation, the fear of love and the dread of its loss, and the desperate sense that your life is rushing by faster than you can make sense of it.

A sad story, yes, but fittingly for a movie bristling with paradoxes and conundrums, also extremely funny.

Allan Hunter of Screen Daily raves about the film’s ‘staggering imagination‘:

Charlie Kaufman is a past master of ingenious conceits and wild flights of fantasy as witnessed particularly in Being John Malkovich and Enternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

His talent has always been filtered through the vision of a sympathetic director but with Synecdoche, New York he assumes the director’s role for the first time.

The result is a film of staggering imagination, more daring in content than form as it explores the unbearable fragility of human existence and the sad inevitability of death.

James Rocchi of Cinematical thinks it is a ‘sprawling, messy work of inspired brilliance‘:

The directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation), Synecdoche, New York is a sprawling, messy work of inspired brilliance and real humanity, a film that enthralls and affects even as it infuriates and confounds.

Synecdoche, New York is bolder and bigger and weirder than the movies that sprang from Kaufman’s scripts for Spike Jonze (Being John Malcovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); it’s also colder and crueler than those films.

Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere says the film is a:

…semi-nourishing, semi-tortured Fellini-esque Chinese box mindfuck-dreamscape…

Anne Thompson of Variety reported recently that the fim screened for buyers earlier in the week:

Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and UTA decided to invite all the top buyers to an early Saturday market screening, well before all the critics and press would pass judgement.

If there was ever a movie perfect for Cannes it is this one, which is, according to those who have read the script and seen it, ambitious, arty and brilliant, if not entirely accessible.

This is the first one sheet poster:

Here are three clips from the film:

And finally the issue of how to actually pronounce the film’s title has been the subject of much speculation as this video from Variety’s Mike Jones suggests:

Apparently the first word of the title is pronounced “Syn-ECK-duh-kee”.

The film is probably going to get released in the US later this year.

> Watch the press conference at the official Cannes site
> Reuters report on the film from Cannes
> Synecdoche, New York at the IMDb