Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Synecdoche, New York

Reviews - Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York

Reviewed By John Stakes

Synecdoche, New York
Synecdoche, New York
Last Sunday’s film saw screenwriter and first time director Charlie Kaufman take Shakespeare’s immortal line “all the world’s a stage” to fascinating yet at times unfathomable limits in his 2008 screenplay “Synecdoche NY”. If attempting to decipher the film’s title was difficult enough (it is not a district in New York), the task of understanding the storyline and structure proved Herculean.

Successful stage director Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man seemingly burdened from the outset by life’s tribulations, finds himself at a major crossroads in his life. Disappointed when his wife Adele decides not to accompany him to the opening night of his “Death of a Salesman”, Caden is understandably shocked when she also tells him she has decided to separate and to take their four year old daughter Olive with her to Berlin. Worse is to follow when she refuses visiting rights leaving Olive to grow up practically fatherless and nursing the belief (wrongly) that he is a closet homosexual.

Hoffman’s persona is of a man bereft of any insight as to his plight and of his effect on others. He is not unloved, however, and there is no shortage of women to massage his ego and comfort him, but they cannot prevent his descent into depression which is followed by a half-hearted suicide attempt. He has become the Willy Loman of his own production.

Out of the blue (and if only in his dreams) Caden is presented with a lifeline and golden opportunity to set out on a journey of self discovery. The surprise recipient of a huge bursary to create a truthful work of art, he takes over a colossal warehouse in which he constructs stage sets relating to aspects of his own life peopled by actors playing himself and those around him, all of whom appear to have a better understanding of him than he does of himself.

Caden proceeds to spend not merely an hour but the whole of the rest of his life fretting and strutting his time upon his own stage (largely mystifying us in the process) and finding himself reduced almost to the role of mere observer as he travels back and forth through his own time. As his life continues to disintegrate around him he comes to meet the only person who understands him and with whom he can relate, a mother figure who feels qualified to inhabit his role (and persona) and who intones him to face a self evident truth that he is but a transient speck in the firmament and at best a mere extra in the lives of others.

Charlie Kaufman was the screen writer behind “Endless Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich”, so it came as no surprise that this exercise in self discovery was peppered with his trade mark “off the wall” oblique imagery and visual invention. Perhaps these techniques were intended to make us feel as frustrated and inadequate as Caden himself (if so it worked for this reviewer!), but Kaufman was clearly in control of his screen play and there was a growing assurance and compelling quality to it all. The more baffling episodes were perhaps best left to reflect upon afterwards (this reviewer having since resolved the conundrum of the green stools but not the burning house!) and repeated viewings may better illuminate a movie overflowing with ideas and a barely contained fertile imagination.

The closing sequences were particularly impressive as Caden approached the end of his disintegrated life, a sadder but wiser man, to the point where he felt there was no longer any point in staging his play which was never destined to reach an outside audience.

The ensemble acting was excellent, everyone appearing to be on Kaufman’s wavelength and the make-up department impressed with a masterly depiction of the ageing process…. and of various skin conditions!

Perhaps at the heart of this complex and dangerously close to pretentious film lay an obvious but fundamental truth that finding companionship (or perhaps merely a shoulder to lean on) can assuage the apparent futility of life. An intelligent, intense, infuriating, funny and perplexing film but one fully deserving its slot in the season and watched by an audience both exhausted and provoked by its challenges as to remain seated until the last of the final credits rolled.

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19th Keswick Film Festival

22nd-25th February 2018


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