Friday, 11 January 2013

Synecdoche New York

The title of the film is a play on Schenectady, New York, where much of the film is set. Synecdoche means where a part of something represents the whole or vice-a-versa which comes to the fore as the film progresses and reality and fantasy blur as the lead character's work becomes a self-fulfilling nihilistic autobiography.

This is at the same time both a simple and yet complex film. It has been called the archetypal post-modern story (oxymoron?) that nods in the direction of Baudrillard's seminal Simulacra and Simulation. It is a play within a play and borrows motifs and artistic references from Jungian Psychology, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and psychiatry. There is a very useful analysis of the film on Wikipedia.

If in viewing this film you want to fully engage with all that it has to offer, you will need to make a significant investment and stick with a film that is hard work. At the same time you will be rewarded with a very cleverly conceived and executed story which is a vehicle for some excellent acting from a heavyweight cast headed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman supported by Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Hope Davies, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Emily Watson.

As the ailing director Cotard slides deeper into physical and relational malfunction so his marriage with his wife disintegrates as she goes to Berlin with their daughter to exhibit her artwork. So successful is the exhibition that she decides to stay there and bask in the glory of the adulation that her work has attracted. At the same time Cotard wins an award that allows him to stage his magnum opus in a huge warehouse in Manhattan's Theatre District. As Cotard's art gets bigger so his wife's art get smaller - she paints in miniature.

As his relationship with his wife becomes increasingly separated by distance and coolness, so Cotard pursues a number of women. One them Hazel, who works the theatre box office, buys a house that is perpetually on fire without being consumed by it. The dialogue with the Realtor is bizarre but indicative of how the story moves along in its synecdoche mode: "I like it, I do. But I'm really concerned about dying in the fire," and the Realtor responds "It's a big decision, how one prefers to die.".

This film received polarised but generally positive reviews. It is a Marmite film - you'll either love it or hate it. I'm prepared to work at films but for me this was too much hard work! Overall I felt it was too introspective, too clever and tried too hard to say too much. Viewing it felt like wallowing in a miry clay - which is of course the description of nihilistic dysfunctionality the story attempts to deliver. The conceptualisation and delivery in this film would score somewhere around an 8/10, however the enjoyment factor, even for a difficult film, would only register a 3/10 for me. I'll be charitable and round up the average to 6/10.

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