According to Wiktionary, a synecdoche is ‘A figure of speech by which an inclusive term stands for something included, or vice versa’. Examples include ‘fifty head of cattle’ and ‘a fleet of ships, fifty sail deep’. So basically, the title is a fancy way of saying the Schenectady, New York-set film is meant to represent the whole of humanity. But although there’s much to admire, it doesn’t quite succeed on that level.
When we meet Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he is a middle-aged man being woken by his alarm clock on the first day of autumn. By the time he’s finished breakfast with his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter, Hallowe’en has been and gone. Yes, this is one of those pictures (that was a synecdoche right there).
Cotard is a small-time theatre director whose artistic ambition extends to casting unusually young actors for parts in Death of a Salesman. But as Adele flees for the relative glamour of Berlin, a strange disease apparently begins attacking his bodily functions, and he decides he wants to do something “important”, while he’s still alive. “That would be the time to do it”, chimes his psychiatrist.
Forty years then fly by, as Cotard wins a massive grant, decides to put on a massive, sprawling production in an ever-expanding warehouse, finds a new wife (Michelle Williams), has a kid with her, secretly longs for yet another woman (Samantha Morton), cries a lot, bodily and emotionally breaks down more and more, philosophises quite a bit, apologises to his daughter (who is now a tattooed stripper on her deathbed) for something he’s probably never done, meets a man who’s been following him for twenty years, and never, ever, gets his play ready for an audience. That’s just scratching the surface of the stuff that happens within dreamlike/nightmarish logic.
“We are all hurtling toward death”, Cotard tells us. “Yet here we are, for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we will die; each of us secretly believing we won’t.” But this isn’t a ‘seize the day’ film; that would be far too simple, and the script is weighed down by too much cynicism. Instead, we are presented with dramatic cinematography, highly skilled performers often creating a deep emotional impact, and…nothingness. To give an example, Cotard is well named, because ‘Cotard’s syndrome’ is a rare psychological disorder whereby the person is convinced they are either dead or decaying, like the main character here. And indeed decay is everywhere in the film, decay that inevitably results in utter death, and annihilation.
Synecdoche is Charlie Kaufman’s debut as a director, having already written scripts for Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – films that are similarly difficult to grasp. In all of his work, desires are frustrated not by rivals or unfortunate material circumstances, but by ‘random’ events, by a cruel ‘god in the machine’ that could never be understood. In this universe of constrictive contortions, happiness is almost entirely elusive, or could only ever last a single night, making the anguish of loss sharper than the dull pain of loneliness. Despite apparently trying to say something about what it is to be human, Kaufman is just like Cotard – lost in his introspection and grand delusions.
There is a sense in which Synecdoche may well be the extreme culmination of a process that has been going on for four decades, but must now end. As the basic workings of western society have been obscured by seemingly endless credit, the decline of heavy industry and worship of the commodity, there has been a trend for insulated and isolated creatives to disengage with the world, and instead look for truth deep inside of themselves. But individual psychologies are the products of interactions with their environments, and change is the only constant.
Here is the line in the sand. This far, and no further, down the cul-de-sac of our own minds. It is 2009. The global economy is plunging into a historic crisis. Only the wealthiest will not feel the coming storm, and its implications. It is time for talented people to take a long, hard, look at the world, and make art that truly says something about the whole.